March 28, 2014 by Nathaniel Tower
Gay Degani recently asked me to share some insight about my characters by responding to five questions. Here we go:
1. What Surprises You About Your Characters? And why?
How little they represent me and the people I know. Oftentimes, my characters are nothing like me at all. Take the husbands in my recently released short story collection Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands. These characters range from bumbling to cowardly to close-minded to downright crazy. Reading them, I find very little of myself in them. Similarly, the women are nothing like my wife. It really makes me wonder where these characters even come from. Perhaps it is just my way of trying to imagine how life might have been. Occasionally I will use someone I’ve met as inspiration, but I don’t think I ever have characters that remind me of people I know well.
2. What do you draw upon to create your characters?
As I just mentioned, I think I mostly draw little snippets from people I’ve met but don’t know really well. I let these slight impressions of people serve as the basic principles of my characters, and then I build them into a fictional reality. So maybe a brief passing interaction with someone at the grocery store will be the outline for a new character. I feel like this is a fairly unusual process for writers, that most writers tend to draw more from what they do know. But since most of my stories are surreal or absurd, I tend to get away with it more.
3. Out of all the characters you’ve created, who is your favorite and why? Please name the story and provide a link if possible.
I have a few favorites that come to mind. The first is the laundering wildebeest in “Laundry Day” (originally published here and also available in my aforementioned short story collection). The wildebeest is one of my favorites because it is such a fun character. Let’s move on to human characters though. I love the couple from “A Blade of Love” (this one was published in Bourbon Penn, Drabblecast, and my short story collection). I think this couple captures the essence of what it means to lose sight of what is important, but then they fight to get it back (you’ll have to read the sequel to get the second half of that). They are a ridiculous couple, but they are very real at the same time. It’s hard not to root for them. Another is The Outlaw from my “Outlaw Trilogy” (this will be available later this year). The Outlaw is a tough character because he is absolutely brutal, but he also has a very human side that develops. It’s fun to write villains who aren’t necessarily villainized even though they definitely should be. The guy is down right evil at times, but maybe he’s not that bad.
4. Are there any characters you are not quite done with yet? What other challenges do you want to give him or her?
I do want to bring the wildebeest back. He needs to be known for more than just invading homes and stealing women’s underwear. Of course, it’s hard to write a wildebeest into a story. Not something you can do every day. There are other characters I don’t want to die, but at the same time, I worry about trying to “resurrect” them. Maybe most of them are best left in the immortality of their original stories.
5. How do you select character names?
I don’t have much of a naming process really. Rarely will I use a character name that overtly means something. There are a few exceptions, such as Detective Geminer from my novel A Reason to Kill. I don’t want to spoil anything for the reader, but his name was definitely chosen with purpose and tells us something about his character. Another example is my character Coal Ivory from “The Disappearing Artist” (available here). There is obvious juxtaposition in his name that probably has something to do with the story. Normally though, I just like to pick names that seem fun (and aren’t too reminiscent of people i know). For some reason, I really like the names Edwin, Hubie, and Dr. Worthington. I also have tried writing numerous stories with a character named Grady. None have been very good, so maybe that says something about the name.