My former sister-in-law deployed to Iraq in 2008 as part of the surge. Her MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was 88M, motor transport operator. She drove trucks, one of the most dangerous jobs in the Army. About halfway through her difficult deployment, my brother got word she was having an affair with another soldier.
“We ransack our memories for occurrences that could—and could not—have happened. A writer’s source of inspiration is a potter’s field of possibility.”
After fifteen months, her tour ended, and she returned stateside. Stationed a couple thousand miles from my brother, she cut off all communication. None of us could reach her—e-mailing, calling, texting; we had no idea what had become of her. In that absence of information, while my brother went out of his mind with grief and confusion, I did what writers do. I went into my mind. I worked to imagine what could’ve happened, and I did so partly out of a sense of guilt.
I did not love my sister-in-law. I didn’t even like her much. I tolerated her because my brother loved her. It’s sad—shameful really—but I’ve found it’s my lot. I fail as a person. I’m awkward, anxious, or angry in my dealings with family, friends, and strangers. In the face of my social shortcomings, which are legion, I try, after the fact, to right them by rewriting them. Sometimes I find my way toward empathy. Occasionally, when I write long and hard enough, running myself through the full wringer of human emotions, I reach something that approximates love.
While my brother’s marriage gradually dissolved, I spent the next five years in daily communion with a make-believe woman inspired by my sister-in-law. In the early going, she, the main character of my first novel, bore a resemblance, at least on the surface, to my sister-in-law. But the longer I spent with her, the more she asserted herself, becoming an individual. Divorced from me and my preconceptions, and sharing only a few cursory details—a military job, a home state—with the woman who spurred her into being, she assumes selfhood. She takes on a name, Specialist Antebellum Smith, and a roster of nicknames: Bellum, Ant, Bang Bang. She has a dog and a dirty mouth. With every nuance, every telltale detail, she comes more to life.
Time and again in my writing, and in the writing of others, I’m mystified by the way this works, when it does work. Characters spring into being. In hindsight, the process seems Frankensteinian. An instant arises, lightning strikes, and the writer, thrilling, feels like the mad doctor, played by Gene Wilder, caterwauling, “It’s alive!”
But this is only how it seems, and it makes for a good story. The reality is drudgery. It’s the daily, grubby work of robbing corpses. We writers amass parts. We harvest organs. Loot graves. We body-snatch. We crib from what we read: “That such a myth-ridden world could take shape in the midst of a war.” We pinch from overheard conversation: “I could use to eat.” Filch from movies: “I might could.” Steal from songs: “Never thought no evil could have settled down.” We ransack our memories for occurrences that could—and could not—have happened. A writer’s source of inspiration is a potter’s field of possibility.
The process of character building is a combination of time and attention. It’s not trial and error; it’s trial by error. Get a character to think things, say things, and do things on the page, and nine out of ten, or ninety-nine out of a hundred, are the wrong things. The mistakes are critical. Most mistakes, unfortunately, lead to deformity. But if you make enough, one mistake, like a genetic mutation, delivers a developmental leap. Mind you, it’s all artifice—the lies that speak truth—but it’s the best of what language offers: communion.
A character that doesn’t develop, that isn’t allotted that life-giving leavening, feels dead to us: the loved one at an open-casket viewing, perhaps, subjected to the wiles of a hack undertaker. Something’s just plain off. Lips a shade too pink. Skin cool and brittle, like candle wax in the icebox. It’s the novelist’s equivalent of the uncanny valley, the valley where characters forever walk in shadow.
Round characters, to use a phrase from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, have a depth, a three-dimensional quality that readers sense. But how does a writer breathe existence into an abstraction and make it seem not just animate but essential?
Forster noted that well-constructed flat characters weren’t simply flat. They “provide their own atmosphere—little luminous disks.” The walk-ons, the tertiary, the most cursory characters, they should not only have depth but emit light. Forster goes on to say: “A novel that is at all complex often requires flat people as well as round.... The case of Dickens is significant. Dickens’ people are nearly all flat (Pip and David Copperfield attempt roundness, but so diffidently that they seem more like bubbles than solids).” Sometimes, bubbles are enough, if they radiate with the foolish fire of will-o’-the-wisps. The bit parts in the best novels are played with the fathomless, few-minute brilliance of a Dame Judi Dench stealing scenes and scoring an Oscar in Shakespeare in Love. But that kind of commitment—artistic, emotional—takes not just time and attention but love.
But what is love to a novelist? In Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of Love, she tells us: “When I set a glass prism on a windowsill and allow the sun to flood through it, a spectrum of colors dances on the floor. What we call ‘white’ is a rainbow of colored rays packed into a small space. The prism sets them free. Love is the white light of emotion.” When we love someone, what we feel for this person is the full range of affect. This, according to Ackerman, is love. Love is not an emotion. Love is all emotion. And there aren’t all that many. The dominant theory holds that there are merely six basics: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.
When I’m trying to create a major character, I’m attempting to evoke in myself—through the thought, action, and talk of that character—every last one of those six emotions. When I ultimately do—if I do—I come to love her. This is my consolation. Love, the life-giving breath. And if I do love her, dear reader, then maybe you will too.
Jay Baron Nicorvo is the author of a novel, The Standard Grand, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in April, and a poetry collection, Deadbeat (Four Way Books, 2012). A sometime teacher at Western Michigan University, where he helps advise Third Coast, he lives on an old farm outside Battle Creek with his wife, Thisbe Nissen, their son, and a couple dozen vulnerable chickens.