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Knowing Your Characters

A Session with Mary Marcus

I don’t think you can know too much about any character you are going to put in a book or a short story. However, that doesn’t mean you have to put it all on the page. Sometimes what you don’t say is as telling as what you do say.

For main characters, I always sit down and play around with names for a while. I’ve never written anything, including short stories, where the names didn’t change several times. And while we are on the subject of names, when you chose one, make sure it’s a name that suits not just the character, but the setting and the time in which your story/novel is going to be told. The great screenplay writer and dramatist, Paddy Chayefsky went to the New York phone book for inspiration. Since we don’t have phone books around anymore, if I’m stuck on a name, I go to Google and pick out the most popular names for boy and girl babies for the year in which my tale is set. I run down the list (and the list is really long) and voila, the perfect name always appears as if by magic. Have a little patience! Your perfect name may be the last name on the list. You’ll know; when you have nailed the name, it just sings to you.

In my novel The New Me, my main character and first person narrator, Harriet, is from the Deep South. She has a very old fashioned name as befits someone from her area of the country born during a time in which people weren’t naming their children for celebrities as much as they are today. Harriet is also, in spite of her feminist sensibilities, an old fashioned sort of wife and mother, the kind who puts dinner on the table every night, even though she has a busy career. Harriet was named for her grandfather, Harry. I never put that in the book, but I always knew it.  Since Harriet is a Food Network host specializing in healthy food, I was happy . Healthy went well with Harriet Thus, Healthy Harriet  became the name of her show.

Harriet’s heel of a husband, Jules, is another example of a name that took a while to get to. He was, in other drafts, Peter, Bobby, and a few other names I don’t recall. Jules is also a homonym for “jewels,” and in fact Jules is a trust-fund baby. One of the problems in Harriet and Jules’ marriage is his incredible sense of entitlement. Jules last name is Prince. And what a prince he is!

The person who does this best, is of course, Dickens. All his wonderful characters have names that suit them and describe who they are as people. Of course, I think Hammett’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon is a perfect name for someone who unearths secrets.

I think once you nail the name, it will bring with it a lot of information.

The second thing I do with characters, before I sit down to write (and sometimes if I am blocked) is to open up a file and start free-associating. This is an old technique I picked up from Self Analysis, a book written by the great analyst and student of Freud, Karen Horney. You can do it with yourself, or you can do it with a character. You can’t know too much about your character. Beyond the physical description, you should know what kind of food he/she eats; what she/he is afraid of. Does he/she get along with his siblings? Mother? Popular in high school—maybe the captain of the football team, or a girl who is captain of the varsity soccer team. You must absolutely know if your character was a nerd, a misfit, a juvenile delinquent, or occasionally, just for the heck of it, rips off a lipstick or a pack of batteries at the drugstore. Maybe you use only one sentence that tells you the whole thing. If your character is an insomniac for instance, a lot of what happens can take place when the world is supposedly sleeping. This is ideal for a character in a mystery.  Or someone who looks out of windows.

In The New Me, I wasn’t interested in going into my main character’s  childhood (although I knew all about it). I wanted her entire arc to be in the present. But Harriet does tell the reader a few things about her past.

How her mother’s housekeeper, Noog, “taught me how to cook. She also taught me that someone could love me. I was her pet, her baby girl.” This also explains why Harriet’s best friend is her assistant Valentina, who is also her housekeeper.

For me, it was important to allude to why Harriet stayed with her impossible husband as long as she did. Why hadn’t she left him years ago? And this answer was in her childhood. She married very young and didn’t know any better. She came from a loveless home and her Mother’s housekeeper was as close as she got to love.

“Practically the first thing I learned about myself was that I wasn’t wanted. I was a mistake.”

Later on, after Harriet’s twin sons leave for college, and she has real “free time” she starts noticing her feelings more. When Jules comes home for dinner, expecting to be fed and catered to as usual, Harriet doesn’t hop to it and Jules realizes immediately that something is amiss in his usually impeccably run fiefdom.


“Harriet? What’s going on?”

Again I didn’t answer. Or jump to attention (my default position) to show Jules that the balabusta was in the lifeboat, ready to do her thing. And, in fact, in one part of my mind, I could already see the little ad hoc feast I would assemble in less than half an hour, as I had hundreds of times before. Tomatoes were still in season and we had them. There were onions, garlic, and mushrooms, and wedges of two kinds of grating cheese. Not to mention jars of my own preserved peppers ready to dump over rice or pasta. And fresh herbs to garnish with. Of course there was plenty of frozen stuff ready to nuke. But Jules didn’t like nuked food.

Still, I didn’t budge.

I was exquisitely aware of the tremendous amount of effort it took not to jump up and head for the kitchen, peppy as Pavlov’s dog. I sat perfectly still, taking the smallest little breaths in and out of my nose, only just enough to get air in. By now the special effects had worn off. And I was starting to feel like a political prisoner hiding in a closet, terrified that any second the authorities would discover I was here and haul me away.


In the midst of this “New Harriet,” Jules declares he wants to have another baby. He’s lonely. He feels old. They go to marital therapy, but couples therapy doesn’t work out.

Then Harriet meets Lydia, a gorgeous much younger woman and the two become fast friends. Lydia will become, The New Me, but Harriet is unaware that this is happening until it’s too late. Lydia, who is very much a wanted person, makes Harriet wonder:

What would it be like to know you are wanted, really, really wanted, I had no idea. I know how to make other people feel wanted, but have always felt uncomfortable if I wanted “things” myself. Perhaps this was the deep silent core of me—one that would never change, and certainly not in the marriage with Jules.

Some characters are just logical extensions of ourselves, and we have to write the book or the story to figure out some really important issue in our lives. I think most first novels are autobiographies.

(Note here: The New Me is not anywhere close to being my first novel, though it is my first published novel). I’m a little like Harriet, but I’m not by any means a lot like her. We both like exercise and hate junk food and adore our children. But it sort of ends there.

Other characters are based on people who have made a big impression on us. We end up writing our version of that person. Maybe we make him or her better than the first impression. Or we turn him or her into a villain or a heroine. I think our subconscious is loaded with characters, some we’ve downloaded, so to speak, and others we have never even met.

For as long as I can remember, often before I fall asleep at night, I am visited by a stream of stranger’s faces. It doesn’t happen every night, but it happens with some regularity. This used to freak me out, but now I’m happy to see new faces and I often ask, “Who are you? What are you doing in my head? Do you have anything you want to tell me?”

I think these phantoms are characters waiting to be born.

I’ve been talking about main characters, and of course they are of paramount importance. But I think minor characters, characters who, say, only walk on for a scene or two are also crucial. And like transitions in a book or story, they are the mark of a good writer. Again, I don’t think you can know too much about these lesser people than you do your major characters. They may perhaps be waiting for a book or story of their own.

With minor characters, who come in and out of scenes in a book, I give them a distinguishing physical characteristic, so even if you haven’t told readers much about the character, he or she can be summoned up easily.

In The New Me, Jules’ half brother Freeman plays a pivotal role in the denouement of the novel. Although I know quite a lot about Freeman, I only really tell readers that he and Jules have never gotten along  and that Jules’ boys, Sam and Dan, don’t like him either.

Jules says about his half brother,  “He’s a fucking suit. He’s been a suit all his life. And those teeth; they look like Chiclets—he told me he had to sell stock to pay for his inlays.”

We also know Freeman makes more money than Jules. Both times when we see Freeman he is in a situation where money “talks;” first in a celebrity hangout in Hollywood where he has more clout then Jules, and second at Harriet’s Thanksgiving dinner, when, to impress Lydia, he brings magnums of Dom. I gave Freeman great big white teeth because basically he’s a shark.  And every time we see him, he’s flashing those teeth to remind us of who he is.

Finally, I don’t think a writer can spend too much time idly thinking about characters. By that, I mean time away from the computer screen, the phone, and the TV set. All those characters/brands/celebrities are someone else’s fantasies, not our own. If you want your character to be real and to touch people, I’d stay away from popular culture. As far away as possible for long stretches of time. We are bombarded (and we bombard ourselves) with all these icons of popular culture. I think this has a bad effect on all of us. There’s too much emphasis these days on celebrity culture. Brand. Who we wish we were. Or who we should be. None of this makes for interesting characters, as far as I can see. Sometimes when I pick up a novel and can’t “see” any of the characters, it strikes me that the writer hadn’t really seen the character either, and had just made up someone from a lot of TV shows.

Make up your own characters. Don’t try to copy some mainstream stuff that’s been a hit. Let them be infused with your own peculiar likings and prejudices, or those you’ve observed in others and have strong feelings about. Let your characters speak first to you and then on the page. If you let it rip, people might actually enjoy reading what (you) they have to say.

Here are some exercises for you to try:


Exercise 1: Ten Things Make a list of ten things you know about your three main characters.

Then, based on that, make a list of ten things you don’t know.


Exercise 2: A Two Paragraph History Write a two-paragraph history of your main characters starting before you introduce them on the page. This is called the backstory. Everybody has a backstory. It’s the backstory that determines the front story.


Exercise 3: Twenty Minutes Kitchen timers (not smartphone timers) are very handy for exercising your writing skills. Spend twenty intense timed minutes with each and every one of the characters in your novel. See what comes up.



About the Author...

Mary Marcus has published short fiction in North Atlantic Review, Karamu, Fiction, Jewish Women’s Literary Journal and The New Delta Review among others. Her first novel takes her deeply personal voice to a new level. Danny Goldberg, author of Bumping Into Geniuses called The New Me “Part baby-boom prose poem, part woman’s re-birth…alternately hilarious and heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful. What a cool first novel!” Moira Walley-Beckett, Writer/Co-Executive Producer of Breaking Bad said, “The New Me is funny, poignant and deftly written. It is a relatable story that beats with a pulse of a modern marriage paradigm and provides cringe-worthy moments that simultaneously delight and distress. This book made me uncomfortable in all the best ways. I couldn’t put it down.”

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