A couple of months ago, Nora got me a T-shirt that reads, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.”
Characters come from unpredictable places, especially lesser characters. The main characters are complex, closely observed. They reveal themselves over time, and often surprise me by thinking or doing something that’s absolutely true but that I never would have seen coming. The facts that Sarasa wears mismatched socks, and that her parents don’t mind, are exactly right, but I didn’t know it for the first 146 pages.
But lesser characters, the folks on the margins… those are a rendition of people I’ve met. They’re cover songs. Just this morning, in fact, I needed an attorney from a law office in Bonn for a phone call in the story (you’ll have to wait for the book), and I had exactly the right person in my experience. I’d led a professional development event for a group of faculty a couple of years ago, and one participant was imperious, disdainful, casually insulting me and others. He was clearly looking down upon us all from his more elevated status, and didn’t hesitate to make that known. The fact that he was German helped me remember him this morning, and his offhand contempt at having to even deal with a civilian became a lawyer’s tone of voice over the phone.
But the borrowing of character isn’t always for third-tier villains. In an earlier book, my protagonist Robert had some interactions with the great pool player Willie Mosconi. I’d read extensively about his history, but didn’t know Mosconi as a person. I watched a video of him in his prime, conducting an exhibition, and that offered his physical characteristics, shooting from a much more erect posture than most players, working quickly, “moving from shot to shot like a man late for a bus.” But I needed him to have a longer conversation with Robert. How would he behave? What kinds of things would he say? For that, he became my friend Frank, a poolplayer and retired engineer who was my regular partner for seven years in Somerville. Generous, funny, kind. I heard Frank’s voice as I worked my way through a conversation before the final match of the 1956 US Championships.
You might end up in one of my stories, too. Whether you’ll be a friend or an adversary is up to you.