I recently read Do Not Wash Hands In Plates, by Barb Taub. This isn't my usual reading, but the strength of Barb's writing on her blog pushed me over the ledge. I'm so glad it did, because this story is wonderful.
One of the things that impressed me was Barb's depictions of the people of India. All of us can use help when it comes to our characters, so I invited her over to help us out.
Once upon the Land Before Time (or at least before mobile phones), my two best friends and I decided to leave the US from separate locations and meet up in Europe. To everyone’s shock, Janine, Jaya and I pulled it off—mostly because we went to Luxembourg, a country so small the odds in favor of chance street encounters were almost 100%, but also because Jaya was carrying the BS, a blue suitcase so enormous it took up approximately a third of the country’s square footage and was visible on satellite images. We couldn’t possibly miss.
It took over thirty-five years before—in a combination of optimism and failing memories— we recklessly decided to repeat this feat. Hey, we reasoned, now we’ve got smartphones, better credit ratings, wheeled suitcases, medical insurance, and the ability to drink legally. Just to make it more interesting, this time we chose to meet in India, where the odds against the three of us actually linking up were approximately a bazillion to bupkis.
This is the story of three women eating our way across India in search of adventure, elephants, temples, palaces, western toilets, monkeys, the perfect paratha… and the kindness of Indian strangers.
Get your very own copy right here: http://authl.it/4kk
Janine Smith, Jayalakshmi Ayyer, and Barb Taub met at the University of Chicago and have been friends for over four decades.
In halcyon days BC (before children), Barb Taub wrote a humor column for several Midwest newspapers. With the arrival of Child #4, she veered toward the dark side and an HR career. Following a daring daytime escape to England, she's lived in a medieval castle and a hobbit house with her prince-of-a-guy and the World’s Most Spoiled AussieDog. Now all her days are Saturdays, and she spends them traveling around the world, plus consulting with her daughter on Marvel heroes, Null City, and translating from British to American.
“Where do these people come from?”
I’d just spent another incredible day in India. Along with Janine and Jaya, my two friends of over forty years, I visited temples founded by gods, stood at Lands End with my toes dipped into three seas at once, watched as an elephant was parallel-parked, and of course—ate one fabulous meal after another. On the way back to Trevandrum, the ancient capital city of the southern Indian state of Kerala, we stopped at a storefront luggage shop. (Curse my newfound addiction to artisan block-printed textiles!) On this trip, I might have bought a few tablecloths. And sheets. And blankets… Despite my friends’ hints that I’d soon need a ten-step program, I was convinced that all I’d require was a (larger) suitcase.
The head clerk greeted us and offered us chairs. But we’d already learned that lesson several pashmina shawls ago. Once you've accepted the politely proffered seat which even the tiniest booth in India will magically produce, they own you—body and wallet. (And if you let them give you tea, they might own your soul too.)
Undaunted, the clerks began pulling out beautiful suitcases with frames and wheels and matching price tags. When Jaya complained about the cost, one clerk scornfully pulled out a little gym bag for 200-rupees ($3.18) to show what crap you would get for that price. It had three layers of zippers that let it expand to nearly four times its original volume, and no earthly claim to charm.
“Perfect!” I proclaimed.
The head clerk stared and shook his head. As I paid another clerk, he whispered to Jaya, “Where do these people come from?”
I thought about him later that night when I was working on character sheets for my next book. Where do the people, our characters, come from? On this trip, I’d met artisans who were passionate about the works they created, and more than willing to tell me about their lives entwined with that process, complete with photos—and names—of their goats. I’d seen people who were doing ancient jobs with modern twists—the temple guide clad in only the abbreviated dhoti which still managed to contain an up-to-the-minute mobile phone, the lady with the roadside stall who would sell you a coconut water plus your digital photo printed out on the printer running off a battery she had under the counter, the ladies with traditional costume who were plucking tea leaves with cleverly machined tools that only took the most tender top few leaves.
I think that the process of turning these chance-met people into characters for my novels
—believable, three dimensional people who change and grow in response to the truly horrifying traumas we writers put them through—is a lot like giving birth. No, I don’t mean the Hollywood version where the heroine gives a slight wince and then in the next scene she’s got her hair and makeup done and is holding a fat, cooing, blanket-wrapped cherub.
No, my characters get the kind of birth where a parade of complete strangers is peering at your formerly private lady parts just as they achieve maximum bloating and leaking all over everything. Each stranger has an opinion about how you should proceed, none of which matters worth a damn because you’re still the one who has to push a watermelon out an opening the size of an apple. It’s a painful and personal and public and humiliating and rewarding endeavor. And the end is really just the beginning—this red, messy, wrinkled, screaming, pointy-headed little creation is still going to take a lot of time and work and love to grow into the beautiful angel you know in your heart they could become.
Just as there are lots of theories about raising children, there are also lots of approaches to creating fictional characters. I know writers who spend months or even years with their characters before they even think about creating plots or setting, holding mental conversations, picturing them in various scenarios, and imagining their reactions to different events. Other writers are true pantsers, and their characters race through words and scenes sprawled across the pages as fast as they can type. Still others develop plot outlines and character descriptions so detailed the actual writing is the easiest part.
Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. For my main characters, I usually have character sheets where I try to nail down the details for a word picture of a character. I can’t claim any particular ownership of this process, because (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, isn’t it?) I’ve ‘flattered’ a lot of other lists as I put this one together. (I’m happy to share if anyone wants to send me a request via barbtaub (at) gmail (dot) com.)
Of about a hundred questions (including some 45 of which have been floating around the webs forever), these are my top ten favorite things that I like to know about my character, but readers will probably never learn:
1. What do you know about this character now that s/he doesn’t yet know?
2. What is this character hiding from him/herself?
3. What is a recurring dream or nightmare this character might have?
4. What music does this character sing to when no one else is around?
5. Describe this character’s most embarrassing moment.
6. In what or whom does this character have the greatest faith?
7. Does this character have a vice? Name it.
8. Who does this character most wish to please? Why?
9. Describe this character’s bedroom. Include three cherished items.
10. If this character had to live in seclusion for six months, what six items would s/he bring?
Once I’ve got the character sheets filled out, I like to send characters on a small adventure or two. But I have to be careful, because almost immediately they start to behave in ways I never imagined in those hundred questions. They develop personality quirks, try to grab hold of the entire story line, and generally act like any sheltered child suddenly set free in Disneyland. Sometimes, before I can catch up to them long enough to remind them that they’re really only supporting characters, they’ve starred in short stories of their own.
At the end of each book, I find that looking at the developed characters is like looking at baby pictures. Because I know the person so well, I discover traces of them in their infant faces. But the complex, scarred, evolved people they’ve grown into makes me want to echo that clerk back in India. Where do these people come from?
Writers: what questions do you ask about your characters before you start? And readers, what questions do you wish you could ask about your favorite characters?