25th Trillium Award

Imaginary Friends: How Writers Relate to Their Characters

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With Nathan Whitlock, Anne DeGrace, Nicole Lundrigan, Ashley Spires, d leonard freeston, Lena Coakley, Ashley Little, Dennis Foon, Annika Dunklee and Claire Tacon.

This month on Fiction Craft, as we continue our explorations of the nuts-and-bolts of writing fiction, we asked ten authors what their relationships are like with their characters.

I?m currently writing a novel, my second, and in the scene most recently completed, the main characters were engaged in a car chase. They were being chased by police, and to elude capture they drove into a car wash. At the close of the scene, soap suds were washing down over the back window of the car as my characters inside the car watched the police speed off in the wrong direction.

Where are these characters? In a Lincoln Continental inside a carwash north of Toronto? Well, you might as well ask where my dead father is. Those characters are not in a car in a carwash. They are not anywhere, of course. They don?t exist outside my head, and even there they don?t really ?exist?, or at least not as actual beings. There is no ?they? any more than there is a Jay Gatsby, or Achilles, or Mad Hatter or Spiderman (sorry nerds). When we read, something happens inside our brains that allows us to conjure up these phantoms. It is the ?alchemy? of reading, of text and light and eyeballs and brain (or Braille and fingers, or sound and ears, as the case may be). I?ve no doubt it can be explained scientifically, and I would probably be fascinated by the reasons for that alchemy. But I don?t intend to go looking for that answer, because I like the ?magic? of it too much, the feeling of magic, the deliberate self deceit. Such feelings are rare and becoming rarer in the world, I feel. For me, reading provides escape. I like to imagine that all of the characters that I?ve loved in novels ?exist? today wherever they ended up in their respective stories.

And curiously, of course, they also exist wherever they came from. A work of fiction is like a time sculpture. The characters can never change what they do. Everything they do will always be the same and they will always be doing all of those things forever, all of them simultaneously. Conceptually, they are frozen in a four-dimensional world, like Duchamp?s ?Nude Descending a Staircase?. Though of course, this is all nonsense. They do not exist at all, in any dimensions. ?They? are nothing more than text and light and whatever happens when that light passes through the eyes into the brain. And what are they before that, before you even pick up the book and start reading? Where are they then?

My characters in the carwash are waiting for me, figuratively speaking. What they?ve done so far in the novel has not yet been carved in stone, but there?s a good chance that much of it will not change. But where are they going? I have an idea, yes. I know their fates, or at least I think I do. Sometimes writing fiction is a surprise. Characters sometimes do things the writer didn?t consciously plan, or they refuse to do other things asked of them. That?s another strange alchemy.

What I do know is that, for the most part, my characters come to me whole, as though they existed inside me and just needed to be hatched. Then they are set on a mission in the novel and it is my task as a writer to help them complete that mission. That?s the way it feels to me. When they are not moving forward, when I am not writing and advancing their story, it feels like they are waiting, as though they are passengers on a train that has stopped. Only I can make that train move again. When I have that feeling, when I cannot abandon a story because those ?people? need me to complete their destinies, then I know I have something. They are the reason I keep writing a story, and until I?ve completed it, I remain deeply unsettled.

Now, let?s see how this month?s authors deal with those imaginary people they hatch into the world.


NATHAN WHITLOCK is the author of the novel, A Week of This. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

My relationship with my characters has always tended to be abusive, though I am trying my best to become more loving and generous, to provide them with room to pursue their destinies and to perhaps experience true happiness, and to not always clamp down on them and punish them just as they seem about to attain their most cherished desires. I am trying, though it isn?t easy. Indulgence doesn?t come easy to me ? I am the kind of person who is able to view his creations with a very cold eye, and who is loath to spare them whatever bitter fate life has in store. As a reader, I hate it when authors seem to encircle one or more of their characters in a ring of protective fire ? the whole point of serious literary fiction is to truly investigate the world, to see how things play out, not to propagandize on behalf of an ideal. The minute you start sparing the rod, you might as well throw in some dragons and kindly wizards, too.

To make up for this tendency, I am a kind and loving father to my children.

(I also try to include jokes, though sometimes it can be hard to tell when I?m kidding.)


ANNE DeGRACE is the author of numerous novels, including Flying with Amelia, Sounding Line and Wind Tails. She lives near Nelson, British Columbia.

When I step onto the metaphorical page, my characters step with me. They are people I know in the way I know someone I've had a nodding acquaintance with for years, and who live with me in the same small town. I know some, but not all of their business, some of it only by hearsay. I know a little of their history; we may or may not have friends in common. And then one day we're in the lineup together at the coffee shop; a conversation ensues, and I realize I didn't know this person at all. From there, anything's possible.

None of my characters are modelled on anyone entirely--acquaintance or old friend?but an amalgam of many, making the character on the page even less predictable than that coffee lineup acquaintance. To me, it's the perfect situation, because I know just enough to get the character on the page but not too much that it colours the developing relationship. I love taking the little I know about a character and plunking him or her in a moment in history or an odd situation. I love taking voice and altering it to fit an era or circumstance.

While I never do character studies, in the back of my mind I am always considering the character's sensory response to experiences, reactions, quirks of dialogue. It's an intuitive thing rather than a calculated thing, and I love the uncertainty and the malleability of this approach.

Occasionally, this non-method fails me. When it does, I?m usually writing in a third person point of view, and then my methodology is simple: I write a couple of pages in first person, the voice comes, and the character is revealed. After that, it's usually clear sailing.

Only once has a character walked into a scene unbidden: in Sounding Line I had my protagonist sitting in a club car on a train heading for Halifax, and a woman walked in?eccentric, a little flaky, strangely self-assured?who took me completely by surprise and then went on to become a major player in the narrative. I can't explain it, and I'm way too practical to speak about muses or channeling, too sure of my sanity to suspect hallucinations. I'm just hugely grateful, and secretly hopeful it will happen again.

My favourite kind of book to write is a book in which there are lots of voices. Flying with Ameila was fun to write because of the scope of time?150 years?and the variety of voices, from age 11 through 95, and from myriad cultures and backgrounds. In the midst of writing that book I would close my eyes at night and let whoever had been closest to my keyboard that day whisper me to sleep.


NICOLE LUNDRIGAN is the author of the novels Glass Boys, The Seary Line, Thaw and Unraveling Ava. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

When I was in university, I went home to Newfoundland fairly frequently to visit. During one summer when my twin nephews were four or five years old, I remember playing a silly game with them I called ?upside-down autopsy?. (Crazy Aunt behaviour, but in my defence, I was studying biology.) Once they were in pyjamas, teeth brushed, they would lay still, arms at their sides, and I would pretend to do the Y-shaped cut with the edge of my hand. (Lots of giggles here.) Then I would proceed to return all organs to their bodies, naming each one as I stuffed it into their bellies. (Some education between the giggles here.) Finally I would sew them up. Once complete, I?d give a puff of air to the big toe, and with the snap of a finger, they were up and bouncing on the bed.

When I received the question about my relationship with my characters, that little bit of autopsy foolishness came to mind. In some ways, it?s the same thing. When I start a novel, I may have a bunch of empty corpses, and when writing, I add in bits and pieces, actions and motives and conversations. Gradually I try to capture the thoughts in their brains, what?s in their hearts, the secrets they hide in their stomachs. In the end, I hope I?ve created people who are up and walking around, who feel whole and very alive.

I?ve always had a deep desire to understand people, and this carries over into my interaction with my characters. I?ve never set out with a list of traits, and built a character around that list. Instead, I spend a lot of time mulling over things my characters say or do. I try to discover the reasons why. I ask questions and wait for the answers. I also tend to focus more on grasping the personalities, and the physical traits come later? usually when another character takes a look at them.

Over the years, the relationship has certainly evolved. With my first novel, I was somewhat uncomfortable and censored my characters to a certain extent. I had this stifling notion that people would assume everything was a reflection of me. A little creature used to sit on my shoulder saying, What will people think? I?ve grown out of that. With my latest novel, I put no limits on myself, and tried to freely and fully explore my characters. Even though they spring from my head, I make an effort to divorce myself from them. Let them be who they are without judging or being overly sentimental. They often feel very real to me, which is a challenge when they are struggling or doing horrible things. Sometimes I want to run away from them. Sometimes they plant too much news in my head. Sometimes they fill me with joy. Sometimes they help me see the world through a different set of eyes.


ASHLEY SPIRES is an illustrator and author of children?s picture books, including Binky Under Pressure, and other titles in the Binky series. She lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

All of my books start with the character. As soon as I draw the star, and, as an illustrator I always start with the visual first, they take on a life of their own. I instantly know their likes, dislikes, pet peeves, hopes and dreams. Characters like Binky, who is based on a real kitty, can sometimes become an amalgamation of the various cats in my life as well. I have three cats and a little of each of their personalities show up in Binky and his friends. Unavoidably, I think every one of my characters has a bit of me in them as well. Binky who dreams of adventure beyond but really just stays home. Small Saul the gentle soul who would rather bake stuff than fight with anyone. And my new character Larf, a sasquatch who likes to live alone with his pets. Definitely a lot of me in each of them!


d leonard freeston is the author of the novel, The Sixth Extinction. He lives in Montreal, Quebec.

The Sixth Extinction is my first novel, so I can?t really discuss a consistent modus operandi. However, the approach I took with this book seems to have served me well, so I?ll continue on in the same way until everything blows up in my face.

I began - as I suppose many do - with a what if? Then I took this idea, wrung out the implications, and I had the rough outline for a story. But I was not willing to commit to a strict plan, much less an ending, until I?d introduced the characters.

The lead characters were schematics at first, designed to accommodate the demands of the plot. I needed a tough and perspicacious heroine, a sensitive but technologically savvy young partner, and a freaking megalomaniac. So I introduced these personalities, along with the requisite sets of physical traits, and surrounded them with a galaxy of minor characters.

The supporting cast was the easy bit. They were for the most part both functional and idiosyncratic, and defined in relation to the leads and my story. As I proceeded, more were added as needed, and they did what was required of them.

The lead characters, though, were another matter. As the narrative progressed, so they expanded to meet its demands. And then a most curious thing began to happen. These figments of my imagination began to take on lives of their own. To be sure, I never lost sight of where I wanted the tale to go and, technically, one could say that I remained the clearing house for motives, desires and objectives. But they continued to grow, to become more assertive, and even to work out their interrelationships by themselves. Soon enough they convinced me that they were independent agents whose attributes and ambitions out to be respected, and they began to direct the flow of the narrative. Not in its coarsest outlines, of course, but in enough ways that I reached a point where a host of plot elements was probably more evident to them than to me.

Still, everyone ended up exactly where I?d wanted, notwithstanding their own imperatives. It?s enough to make me feel as if I?d made lucky choices in the rough sketches of my characters.

Notice the absence of psycho-babble. I wouldn?t want to speculate on the role my subconscious played in shaping the characters and their missions. That?s a mug?s game. As for their part, they certainly wouldn?t want to give away anything that detracts from an appearance of autonomy.

I am now ready to address the main question head-on: Describe the nature of your relationship with your characters. Without doubt, I took on the role of a parent, and they the roles of growing children. At first they took baby steps as directed, but gradually they developed wills of their own. I guided them as they matured, but I found myself interfering less and less as they hit their stride. That we were all in accord about the resolution of the The Sixth Extinction persuades me that I?d been something of an influential parent, imbuing them with certain unshakeable values. Even, God forbid, the villains among them.


LENA COAKLEY is the author of the young adult fantasy novel, Witchlanders. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

It took me a long time to get to know Ryder, the main character in Witchalnders. I was endlessly doing character exercises out of writing books where I peppered him with interview questions, or made lists of adjectives to describe him, or imagined I was taking him out hat shopping. I told myself that a grouchy, taciturn young adult who speaks in monosyllables would be hard to get to know in real life, too; Ryder was just being a typical adolescent. Of course, what I really needed to do was throw a pot of boiling oil or a love interest at him.

Writing a first novel is where we learn the deep truth behind all the writing adages we thought we understood, and I needed to understand the one about character being revealed through action. Ryder didn?t need adjectives to come alive, he needed verbs.

I?m dubious when writers say things like, ?my character took over? or ?my character has a life of his own,? and yet, I feel myself sliding into the same beliefs. It?s hard not too. In spite of all my well laid plotting, every time I presented Ryder with a new situation, he surprised me?sometimes a lot and sometimes a little?and I had to rejig my plans. But I didn?t really start to know him until I tested him with the events of the story, until I cornered him and forced him to react and make decisions. I?m glad I finally learned that no amount of hat shopping was going to do that.


ASHLEY LITTLE is the author of the novel Prick: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist, and Courage, My Love (forthcoming, 2013). She lives on Vancouver Island.

I love them all. Even the bad guys. Especially the bad guys.

When I develop a character I like to know everything about him/her. I make huge character charts with butcher paper and crayons where I list everything I know about the character and then hang it on my wall like wallpaper so I can go look at it whenever I want to spend some quality time with that character (or if I forget what colour her eyes are). I take my characters through the Proust Questionnaire. I have to know my characters inside and out so I know what they will do in any given situation. Then, when I have them pretty well figured out, I sit down at my computer and listen for their voices. Sooner or later, they come.

So far I?ve planned out all the characters that have appeared in my fiction, except one. In my first novel, PRICK: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist, the character of Kate was a total surprise. I don?t know where she came from, I didn?t know anything about her, she just appeared at the bagel shop and started talking to Anthony, the narrator of the novel. Kate ended up being a major character and changing the arc of the story. It was really neat how that happened; I really enjoyed her materializing spontaneously like that. In a way, she felt more authentic to me than some of the other characters, because she hadn?t been pre-planned at all, she was born fully formed.

When I finish a novel or story my characters don?t go away. It?s like they?re still alive and with me but I can?t hear them anymore. Sometimes, I really miss hanging out with them. One of the main characters from PRICK decided to show up as a minor one in my new novel, Anatomy of a Girl Gang. I guess he wasn?t finished talking yet.


DENNIS FOON is the author of numerous books for young readers, including Double or Nothing, The Keeper?s Shadow (part three of his Longlight Legacy series) and The Short Tree and the Bird That Could Not Sing. He has also penned numerous screenplays for television and film. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

For me, the process of creating a character usually begins with a lot of reading, as well as interviews with people living or working in the area I?m researching. Somewhere along the way, the characters start to take on a life of their own, with urges and demons and issues that I connect with. Whether it?s a teen who?s addicted to gambling, a young man battling for his life in a dystopian near future, or a serial killer stalking Vancouver?s streets, I seek an emotional connection, the glue that will bind me to them.

I have no doubt that my background in theatre and film plays a large part in this process. As a playwright and screenwriter I know I have to create detailed characters, with strong objectives and a big enough heart for an actor to want to inhabit their role and bring that character to life. When I write fiction, I hold the characters to the same standard, only there it is the reader who finishes the process and completes the creation of the character.

So my relationship with my characters is ultimately and inextricably linked to the audience and their imaginations.


ANNIKA DUNKLEE is the author of the children?s picture book, My Name is Elizabeth. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

When I was first asked to write a piece for this article, I thought, ?Hey, why not? It?ll be a breeze. I?ll just bang out 100 ? 500 words lickety splat, no problem, on a subject with which I?m quite familiar: my characters.? But, as many drafts later would reveal, writing as me proved to be a much greater challenge than I had anticipated. Because I write children?s picture books, I am not accustomed to writing as myself. Squeezing out 100 words had never been so arduous (and checking word count every two seconds certainly didn?t help).

Who did I want to come off as? How much did I really want to reveal about myself? I shied away from writing as who I really am and the end result was boring as hell. And then I realized: it is far easier for me to write in character, than to write as me.

Writing as me, I have nowhere to hide, and am completely vulnerable and open to judgment. But, with my characters I can slink in and out of them with ease, embellishing here, exaggerating there and creating a wild cast based on aspects of me and others I?ve known in my life. One minute I can be the exasperatingly beautiful heroine who has a secret fascination with peanut butter, and the next I can be the crazy, neurotic shopkeeper with the dirty fingernails.

Apparently, when I?m creating characters I can?t seem to get away from myself, and when I?m supposed to be writing as me, I?m nowhere to be found.


CLAIRE TACON is the author of the novel, In the Field. She lives in Guelph, Ontario.

Usually the main characters in a piece will spring into being already half-formed. It?s like hitting it off with a friend of a friend at a cocktail party. On the one hand, it feels as if you?ve known them all your life, but then you hit a point where you really need to sit them down and ask them some questions. Oh, you grew up in Montana? You always wanted to be a rhythmic gymnast? I didn?t realize you?d worked with Denise in high school at the mall carnival?

Once I have a grip on the character and their biography, I?ll start shaping those details to suit the narrative. It?s a mix of construction and excavation. Along the way, characters will take on aspects of people I know?a nickname from a childhood friend, an ex-boyfriend?s love of spinning donuts on gravel roads, a coworker?s obsession with making everything in their house automatic. Stealing these kinds of details really helps fill in the places where a character feels flat. Usually the source isn?t recognizable, but it makes the characters feel more credible because it?s drawn from life.

By the time I?ve finished the first draft, the characters seem like family?I don?t always like them, but I always love them.


Read past editions of Fiction Craft:

August 2011: How do you tackle revision of your work?

July 2011: How do you approach research for your fiction?

June 2011: How do you make your characters come alive?


Shaun Smith is the author of the YA novel Snakes & Ladders and the e-book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food & Chefs. He has published journalism with CBC.ca, Quill & Quire, Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and numerous other outlets. His book blog "Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries" appears each Sunday (no kidding!) on Open Book Toronto.

Follow Shaun on Twitter.


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