Where Characters Come From
I'm often asked whether I'm annoyed by being asked the same questions
over and over. Quite often the question is asked by someone who
has invited me to read and to answer questions afterwards, or
by an interviewer hoping to provoke me. The short form of my answer
is always, "No," but usually some qualifications are
thrown in. There are questions, for example, I am asked by the
press or by teachers of creative writing that I've never been
asked by anyone in an audience or in a classroom. There are times
when questions are so particular to the questioner that I'm at
a disadvantage if I can't find out quickly (by subtle questioning)
why they asked. There are a few-but only a few-truly boring questions.
Even then, my reaction usually has to do with when in the interviewing
process they are asked. If the first question is, "Where
were you born?", I sometimes lie.
But there are other often asked questions that I not only don't
mind, but that interest me. For example: "Where do your characters
come from?" My usual response to that is that they aren't
taken from real life and plopped into a story-and that the stories
themselves are never adayin-thelife versions of things I've actually
experienced-or actually experienced that way. Then, depending
on how strange the whole process of writing seems to me on that
particular day, I add that I don't mistake my life for art, or
I say that certain characters can indeed be versions of real people,
but that I haven't necessarily met these real people (say, Princess
Diana, or Queen Latifah); their secret desires, eccentricities
and speech patterns have registered with me from photographs or
from items in the tabloids.
In retrospect, I've realized that I've never begun a story because
I wanted to reveal something about a character. It's absolutely
necessary that I do this, of course, but when I'm working on the
first draft, I file that in the back of my mind and proceed to
name some hypothetical being who, in my mind, is immediately seen
clearly in one respect, standing in a room, or on the beach, or
on a lawn. Because I see instantly the character's context-because
I understand the visual world surrounding the character, I'm able
to know instinctively whether the story is in past or present
tense. I pick up ambient sound before I begin to register dialogue
(or awkward silence), I squint to see the character's first tiny
movements (Oh hell: he smokes), and by then, if I'm lucky, the
room in which I write has in effect disappeared, and I'm in the
room in which my cigarette smoking man stands. I become a fly
on the wall because I don't want to be noticed. My sensibility
will inevitably be noticed, but any direct confrontation between
myself-because I know myself too well-and the character (or, by
this time, characters) could only be counterproductive. Without
me there to enact the usual social shuffle (entering with a smile;
commenting on the obvious), the character, who may intuit he is
being spied on, may be provoked into saying or doing something
uncharacteristic, and in those offmoments, of course, people tend
to reveal more with their impulsive gestures or their outbursts
than they reveal when they are being assiduously observed. My
characters, hopefully, are the animated equivalents of outtakes
during a portrait shoot. I think of Richard Avedon's portrait
of Marilyn Monroe: her eyes closed; an unmistakable aura of sadness
surrounding her as she sits picture pretty in her lowcut evening
gown. It isn't a definitive photograph, but it's a picture that
makes you realize other images must be factored in if you have
any interest in getting to the complex truth of the woman. Hereafter,
you'll have to superimpose this Marilyn with the better known
Marilyn who's reached down to stop her big swirl of skirt from
blowing up entirely. And if you retain those polarities, you'll
probably be prepared to believe anything you continue to see:
Marilyn in a head scarf, golfing; Marilyn with the Kennedy brothers;
the fuzzy photograph that recently appeared in a European tabloid
that was said to depict Marilyn, naked, facedown in bed, dead.
Where do my characters come from? As quickly as possible, they
come into focus as people I both recognize and do not recognize,
by which I do not mean that a personal friend appears in
the story, suddenly dressed in an odd way. But I have to have
the same empathetic reaction to the character I would have toward
a friend-or toward someone who was going to be a friend; I know,
I have noticed, only so much-so the character is likely to be
someone who makes me comfortable enough to animate him or her
but one who retains enough mystery to make me excitedly uncomfortable
about the outcome of his or her life.
Where my characters come from varies from story to story. I think
part of the answer is that they come from the same places the
people in my life come from: as a small child, I outright invented
them; there was a Mr. Mandell, who was going to capture me and
put me on a boat to China, whose presence I protested every time
the lights went out (My mother said, "Let's get another thought."
Where my dialogue comes from-or at least where the really good
dialogue comes from-is another story). They come from stories
friends tell me about their friends whom I don't know. Sometimes
I eventually meet these friends of friends, who inevitably think
I'm psychic. They say, "You won't believe this, but the same
thing happened to me." They come from what I understand of
life by going to the movies and by walking down the street and
by befriending new dogs. But this gets too diffuse, I realize.
These are the things people say (gesturing in all directions)
when they want to suggest they have mastered a great complexity.
I could probably make "Where I get my characters from"
sound like a mixture of my great common sense, which paradoxically
accompanies my (some would say) unsophisticated, or at least selfdeprecating,
sense of wonder at the world, and the ways of the people therein.
I could lie, as I sometimes do about where I was born, and explain
their evolution so that it would sound reasonable-meaning, reproducible-because
I'm sure peoples' desire to proceed the same way a published writer
proceeds is often the subtext of the "Where do they come
from?" question. I could remember to add that I'm somewhat
mystical, and that I think some characters have been a sort of
cosmic gift. I should also be forthcoming and say that it's often
been disquieting, feeling so vulnerable to a character's vicissitudes;
they can cause you the same trouble as real life people. Which
leads me to the final thing I have to say on the subject of characters.
They've come into my life in the same strange way so many things
have. Years ago, when I lived with a bunch of people in Connecticut,
we didn't have a key to lock the door in our rented house, so
through the years I went back to that house to find, for example,
a dead raccoon in the sink with ice cubes dumped over its head
(courtesy of the garbage man, who knew one of the people who lived
there loved to make road kill stew). One day I encountered the
dog catcher eating a sandwich in the kitchen. I don't believe
the dog had run away. Another time, after an entire day home alone,
I went for the first time into the kitchen and found a young man
meditating silently on top of the washing machine. He had hitched
from Vermont to Connecticut and gone to the wrong house. I'm married
to a man who moved to Charlottesville, VA for a semester to teach.
One month before he left, he caved in to pressure from an acquaintance
in New York and called me, having found the one expired phone
book that printed my unlisted number. My friends are-to make quick
sense of them-"diverse." Some appear months later than
expected, hauling caravans of trucks pulling trailers that contain
two dogs, four cats, two birds, and a much noseandearpierced daughter,
and getting to Maine just in time to have the whole road show
sink in the field across from our house during a summer hurricane.
For the eccentrics, I don't have to look far. But if I'm amused
in real life, why bother to recast people in fiction? It's the
less excessive friends who more often appear, standing in the
room holding the cigarette they don't smoke, though as they come
into focus I see not a snapshot from life, but an instant collage
of what's there and what isn't: my sofa; certainly not a painting
I'd want to own; and please, a joke's a joke, but couldn't that
Inca flute music be turned down? As he walks across the floor
to adjust the volume, the character metamorphoses into a total
stranger. In a horror film, I'd hold my breath, but this has happened
so many times in stories that I only perk up slightly. Finally:
something I'm not even slightly in control of. By the time he
gets to the stereo, Mozart is playing, and he has the good sense
not to turn it off, but simply to put his head on top of the machine
and close his eyes. The character who next walks into the room
is bound to understand it all, instantly. I'll just be transcribing
her actions. From there, the story unfolds-one hopes on some real
trajectory-until the moment when characters who have defined themselves
suddenly change. One speaks, saying something outofcharacter.
The other reacts. The answer is even more unexpected. My stories
don't always follow this pattern, of course, but once it's all
there-text and subtext and characters who have a life of their
own, I get to step in, become a part of the final shaping, because
by then I can intuit what's needed to make it work as a story.
In 1979 I wrote a story called "The Burning House."
At the end of the story-which I knew was coming because everything
else was in place-something happened that astonished me, and that
also allowed the story to be completed. The husband and wife,
after a strange day of feeding house guests and dealing with their
child's anxiety, and the woman's whispered conversations with
her lover on the telephone, and all the overwrought house guests
generally blowing around like dust stirred by a fan, retire to
"Did you decide what you're going to do after Mark's birthday?"
He doesn't answer me. I touch him on the side, finally.
"It's two o'clock in the morning. Let's talk about it another
Yes, please, this story was about to conclude.
"You picked the house, Frank. They're your friends downstairs.
I used to be what you wanted me to be."
"They're your friends, too," he says. "Don't be
"I want to know if you're staying or going."
This woman is going to persist? The story's almost over.
He takes a deep breath, lets it out, and continues to lie very
still. "Everything you've done is commendable," he says.
"You did the right thing to go back to school. You tried
to do the right thing by finding yourself a normal friend like
Marilyn. But your whole life you've made one mistake-you've surrounded
yourself with men. Let me tell you something. All men-if they're
crazy, like Tucker, if they're gay as the Queen of the May, like
Redd Fox, even if they're just six years old-I'm going to tell
you something about them. Men think they're SpiderMan and Buck
Rogers and Superman. You know what we all feel inside that you
don't feel? That we're going to the stars."
He takes my hand. "I'm looking down on all of this from space,"
he whispers. "I'm already gone."
My characters, who surprise, and enlighten, and dismay me so often,
come from familiar worlds with unfamiliar subtexts. Similarly,
they are "real"-not madeup-until the very early point
in any story when they will not be contained, and then they are
transformed so they are beyond my comprehension until the moment
something clicks, and then I know what I did not know before,
or did not articulate to myself. Inventing characters is for me
no different from inventing any day. The best days, though, are
the ones that contain real inventions. The days when I write stories.
Ann Beattie has written many wonderful novels and story
collections, including Secrets and Surprises, The Burning House,
Picturing Will, and Love Always.