Familiar Characters

Lily Meyer

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 194.

My debut novel, Short War, which will be published next week by Deep Vellum, is not autobiographical. One of its three main characters, a grad student named Nina, does bear some external resemblance to me—we are both Jewish millennial women who live in Washington, D.C.—but her inner life is nothing like my own. I was eager, in fact, to keep my thoughts out of her head, even on subjects important to both of us. The book is, to a large degree, an exploration of American identity and privilege, topics that Nina, who’s in her late twenties, begins worrying about midway through the novel, but that have obsessed me since I was in high school. Even though Nina isn’t me and isn’t based on any person I know, I did give her a real figure from my life to talk to. At the start of her section of Short War, Nina goes to Buenos Aires to do doctoral research. She rents an apartment from a sculptor named Paula, a charming, elegant, gently iconoclastic older woman whom Nina adores just as instantly as I adored the woman I modeled her on: an architect and jewelry designer from whom I rented a room in Buenos Aires in 2012 and who remains my beloved friend.

Initially I wrote my friend into Short War because I missed her. It was 2020, and I hadn’t seen her since 2017. During the early months of the pandemic, when I was drafting Nina’s part of the book, I wondered if or when I’d get to visit her again. Putting her on the page—writing about her chunky necklaces, her hennaed hair, her enveloping hugs—was a way of visiting her. It warmed something in me, and, I found, it warmed up my prose. The affection that I felt for my friend loosened my fingers as I wrote. It helped me relax more deeply into the story I was telling and opened me to longer and more playful stretches of dialogue that were less planned than I would ordinarily permit myself. This transformed the story. Before I wrote the scene in which Paula appears, I didn’t expect it to be especially important to my plot; I thought it would be a brief, fun set piece, a good way for readers to get to know Nina as a social animal. Instead that scene became the book’s pivot point. It sets up—Paula sets up—the mystery that Nina spends the rest of her section of the novel trying to solve.

I often say that I don’t write autobiographically because I spend enough time with myself already. Writing about my own life, or giving a character my unaltered thoughts, gives me a closed, dull feeling. But putting a character modeled on my friend in Short War had the opposite effect: Just as talking to her over the years has opened me to new ideas, helped me develop my language and thinking, and given me a very precise image of what I want to be like in my sixties (just like her, with jars of home-pickled eggplant in my kitchen and stacks of art books in my living room), writing about a variation of her opened my story up. When I began the Paula scene, I knew the plot I’d designed, but I had no idea how to introduce the revelation on which it hung. Mid-scene, I found it emerging—in a way that was not planned but felt entirely right and natural—from Paula’s mouth.

Of course, there’s a less woo-woo explanation for this breakthrough. By basing Paula on my friend I lightened my imaginative load. I was already developing Nina’s character; putting her in a scene with a version of someone I knew was easier than creating another new character, freeing up my subconscious to work on narrative. If that’s the case, well, I recommend including real characters in your fiction to anyone stuck between Major Plot Point A and Major Plot Point B. And regardless, I wholeheartedly endorse tucking a person you love and miss into your work here and there. It’s a little conjuring act, a way to love both your friends more and your book more. I can’t say I did a lot of smiling while I revised Short War, but I always grinned my way through work on the Paula scene—and often e-mailed or texted my friend afterward. Even without the plot development, that’s reason enough to have put her in my book.


Lily Meyer is a translator, critic, and the author of the novel Short War (Deep Vellum, 2024). A contributing writer at the Atlantic, she has translated Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s story collections Little Bird (Deep Vellum, 2021) and Ice for Martians (Columbia University Press, 2023).

Art: Artem Beliaikin