Please welcome Khara House to The Writerly Life.
I met Khara through a platform challenge last spring, and I continue to be amazed by her poetry, her social media savvy, her wit, and intelligence. Khara is a dynamo poet, but today, she shares some wisdom about creating fictional characters. Thanks, Khara!
Knowing What’s Real
I recently chatted with a fellow fiction-writing friend about the nature of character creation. What we mutually determined was that writing fictional characters is almost a form of insanity. We get busy crawling into the skin of strangers, listening to their voices as we let them take over our heads and speak to us, and through us, in ways you’d be in serious trouble if you let it happen out loud! The only difference is that, if insane, we’d be creating illusions: in writing, we’re trying to create something real.
I took a class in undergrad on creative writing. For one assignment we were tasked with writing a narrative in which we paid a keen amount of attention to a moment, making that one moment last as long as possible. In my narrative, it was the story of a mother shopping with her young son, and the moment was the son dropping a jar of peaches. I received good marks on the story, but the professor’s one point of contention was that the mother didn’t seem authentic, because she didn’t “sound Black.”
Maybe it’s important for me to point out that I am a Black writer here. But in that moment, I had never really thought of myself as “a Black writer.” I was just “a writer.” But because I was a Black writer, my professor had thought that my mother character was Black. And I think, in my mind, at some points I’d wanted her to be Black, too, or at least a reflection of my own mother. We couldn’t figure out where things had gone wrong in that depiction—her words were fine, her actions believable. And then it struck me, and I pointed out, “You know, I don’t think my mom ever bought a glass jar of peaches. We bought cans.” I hadn’t thought enough about who my character was, and because of that, some of the details created a conflict of understanding. It was nothing my character said that betrayed who or what she was: it was in the details.
One of the activities I gave a poetry class I taught was to write a character-I poem, in which they created a “new self” as the speaker and enveloped themselves in that character’s world. It’s a challenge, to let those new voices speak inside ourselves. It’s also a ton of fun. And the more we allow ourselves to be wrapped up in the worlds of the people we create, the more realistic they’ll be, whether we’re writers crafting Black or Hispanic or Asian or Middle Eastern characters, or any other creation. Often the authenticity is in the details—a mason jar instead of a can, a cul-de-sac or a lawn or a cement sidewalk or an orange tree in the backyard. A lock of hair or a loc. Bananas or plantains. Finding out what’s real for our characters is often more than what we have them say, or even what they do. Often, it’s in the details, just like the devil. And the devil of it is, we can make or break, solidify or shatter, a fictional reality just by adding or withholding that one right, or wrong, detail.
These days, when I go about creating characters, I’ll create a full dossier for each one. I interview them. I talk to them. I create the towns where they grew up. I talk about their pets and their favorite toys. I get a sense of who they are in as much detail as possible. I create listed details for their hair. I’ll interview their neighbors. I get to know all the details of their lives before I put their first words on the page. So by the time I’m writing them, I know not only the character inside and out …
I know, with absolute certainty, what’s real.
Call to Action: I encourage you to give the “character-I” activity a try. Either as a poem or prose, write a piece in which you engage with the details of a character’s life you’ve created. Don’t only envelop yourself in who he or she is … wrap yourself up in the details of his or her world. Learn to live in your characters’ skins, and discover for yourself what is “real” again!
Khara House is a poet, freelance writer, and educator. Originally from Pennsylvania, she currently lives in Arizona, where she teaches First-Year Composition at the university-level. Visit and learn more about Khara online at www.kharahouse.com.