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Sandi Kahn Shelton | Finding Characters

December 30, 2008

Sandi Kahn SheltonOne of the most fun things about writing a novel (or as my uncle put it, “telling lies for profit”) is coming up with characters. People are always asking writers where the characters come from — it’s the #1 question when you go for readings and signings — and I’m afraid they always seem disappointed by the truth, which is, “I have utterly no idea.”

With my new novel, Kissing Games of the World, the main character, Jamie McClintock, showed up one morning when I was taking a bath. I was lying there concentrating on keeping the tub filled to the top with hot water using only my big toe (a delicate balance of draining and refilling which practically requires a degree in engineering and physics to keep it just right), when I noticed somebody wafting around over by the shower head, explaining to me about how she was an artist and a single mom raising her 5-year-old boy, Arley, who had asthma. They lived in a farmhouse in Connecticut with Harris, an older man famous in town for his rascally womanizing, who was now redeeming himself by raising his 5-year-old grandson, Christopher, whose father had run away.

I really appreciate it when a character arrives with her trouble already spelled out; it’s much harder to work with somebody who insists that life is just fine. And Jamie had a whole bunch of trouble. Right at the beginning, Harris dropped dead unexpectedly, and his estranged, hated son (Christopher’s father, Nate) came back to claim the house and his little boy, and move him back to California. As Jamie explained the situation, Nate was a jet-setty, arrogant kind of guy, a salesman, and his plan was to drag his kid along on his business trips and educate him in hotel rooms. Jamie went hysterical over this. (I didn’t mind; I’ve learned finally that you have to put your most beloved characters in lots of trouble, or there’s no story.) I was having lots of fun writing about Jamie’s view of this guy when one day, while I was driving to work, I heard this voice in my head say to me, “Wait just a minute. Would you just hold on a bloody second? I’d like to tell my side of things, if you don’t mind.” It was Nate.

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And — well, he proceeded to take over the whole book. (Kind of like when you let a man drive your sports car for a minute. You have to be careful or you won’t get the keys back.)

At first I thought I would just give him a chapter, let him explain a couple of things Jamie couldn’t possibly know about, but then his voice was so strong, and he had such an interesting story, that he and I just kept going together. He had things to tell me about his father, and about his mom and his wife, and why he played baseball as a kid, and who he slept with in high school, and why he thought traveling and sending money was the best thing he could do for his son. He told me about his fiancée and his charismatic boss, and even some of his favorite sales strategies.

And — this is a little embarrassing — but I kind of fell for the guy. In a good way, of course. Whenever I’d be writing his scenes, it was like taking dictation. I honestly could hear his sarcastic, take-no-prisoners tone of voice. He made me laugh.

“Let me just write this book,” he would whisper to me at night when I was falling asleep. “Come on. Let’s do this together!”

I went and looked at the contract from my publisher. It said I had a book due in the category of “women’s fiction.” My editor would freak out if I called and said a guy had hijacked the book, and I’d now be writing about HIM.

So we compromised. I limited him to every other chapter. One for Jamie, one for him.

And an interesting thing happened. While his chapters were exciting and funny as hell and practically came to me faster than I could type them, Jamie realized she was being outdone and had to step up and start making her story deeper and more dramatic, too. I mean, this woman had issues. Not just the kid with asthma either. Trust problems, ex-boyfriend troubles, a wish to use her art to hide from human beings. And when little Arley ended up adoring Nate, while Christopher would have nothing to do with him, Jamie found herself actually hoping that Nate, whom she loathed, would stick around.

He didn’t, of course. Not at first anyway. But I can’t tell you any more than that. Except that it was a real ride, being in these two different heads at all times. It was fun exploring love that comes out of nowhere and slams people right upside the head, as my mother would have put it. I hadn’t ever written a real love story before. I was afraid of being too Hallmark card-ish or sentimental. You know how that can be. And honestly, there were times when I was writing this book that I thought this love story was so unsentimental that it wasn’t going to work out at all, that everybody would go their separate ways and be better for it.

But then — well, a whole bunch of stuff happened. It always does, if you’re lucky. You’re at the mercy of these characters who show up in the bathtub with you, or sitting next to you in the passenger seat of your car, or chatting you up from your pillow in the middle of the night — and suddenly they take on a life of their own, and you’re just along for the fun of it. That’s the thing you can’t ever really explain to people who think the character is really you, or your best friend, or a guy you went to high school with.

They’re nobody you know, but for a little while, they move into your head and explain life to you — and then one day you finish the book, and you look around for them, but they’re gone. And soon, somebody else is lurking by the shower fixture, saying, “Pssst. I have something to tell you…”

Sandi Kahn Shelton
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