“You never know what’s boiling in somebody else’s pot.”
I love that saying. I don’t know where I heard it, likely I read it in a book, and I’ve stolen it shamelessly. To me, that one sentence is not only a very important life lesson in not judging others, but it sums up everything a writer needs to know about designing fictional characters.
It’s human nature to judge people by the little bit we see of them: The successful athlete, the wealthy CEO, the single mom, the disabled, the grouchy store clerk, the brilliant doctor, the gorgeous model. We get a glimpse of someone, whether it’s on the cover of a magazine, or for a few hours on a sports field, or maybe in the couple of minutes it takes at the checkout counter. We’re so quick to sum up everything we think we know about someone, but what we don’t know amounts to an iceberg the size of a football stadium, lurking beneath the surface.
Is the brilliant doctor a secret drug addict, turned onto soothing opioids after losing one too many patients? Is the athlete with a boatload of trophies harboring suicidal thoughts because concussions and a nomadic lifestyle have made it impossible to have a normal life? Is the store clerk grouchy because she had to stay up late the night before preparing for her master’s degree thesis?
The mass of possibilities, that jumble of triumphs and tragedies, pain and joy, and sometimes just the drudgery of everyday living, is the stuff not only of real life, but of our fictional characters too.
Think about the people you know well. What is their life story? What experiences made them the way they are? What secret pain do they carry? What makes them happy? Frustrated? Rejuvenated? What are they good at? What do they struggle with? Who do they love? Who do they hate?
Now think about your fictional characters and ask yourself the same questions. Design them as though they were a real person, with real experiences, with annoying and alluring quirks, with hopes and dreams and disappointments and successes. And with secrets!
Never forget to give your character a damned good secret.
Your imagination is as big and wide and endless as a prairie field that stretches beyond the horizon. Use it to make your characters as complicated and compelling as the real thing. And remember, the stranger or acquaintance you cross paths with next may not be the person you think he or she is. In fact, I can almost guarantee it!
Tracey Richardson is the author of nine lesbian romance novels with Bella Books (www.bellabooks.com) and is a two-time Lambda Literary award finalist.