Making Characters “Reveal Themselves to You”

Creating fictional people that seem real requires, among other things, writing a final draft in which you “take out all the lies.”
  • Transcript


Question: How do you make your characters seem real to you?

Anne Lamott: Well, that’s a good question.  I’ve known these people for a long time.  I started Rosie in 1980, so that’s 30 years ago; I was going, oh, that’s 15 years ago now.  Is that 30 years ago?  1980—oh my God.  And I can honestly say in this case, this little girl with black curls and enormous Siamese blue eyes came up to me and tugged on the sleeve of my shirt and I saw her and I knew her name. 

And it turns out, my father had a character named Casey Ferguson 30 years before that in one of his novels and I don’t even remember reading it, but I loved the name.  I thought, this was great. 

And then I wanted to write about alcoholism because I’m a sober alcoholic, but I wasn’t at the time; I got sober in 1986.  But I was so fascinated by what was happening in my interior landscape that this wonderful, adorable, religious, high-achieving person simply could not stop drinking, if I had one.  I wanted to write about that partly for my own salvation.  And then all of a sudden one day, there was a knock at the door of the Ferguson house and they’re a lonely family; the father has died and Elizabeth, the mother, is shy and depressed.  And there’s this big zaftig woman with a kind of Gibson Girl haircut and she’s new in the neighborhood and she has decided that she and Elizabeth are her new best friends.  And so, then one day, she tricks Elizabeth into going to a backpacking trip, but she really minimizes what it will involve and Elizabeth is just enraged; she’s not a backpack sort of girl.  But they meet these two guys and get drunk with them up at the campfire, and she ends up marrying one. 

So, little by little they reveal themselves to you if you’re open and receptive to what would be the truth of their lives and their arc and their thinking and their growth, or their setbacks.  My main problem is that over and over again, I try to get all my characters to say stuff that I think is so witty or erudite you know, so that everybody will go, whoa, that Anne Lamott is like so brilliant, and then I have to go through and take it all out.  I do a final draft where I go through and I take out all the lies. 

But you get to know them little by little and you don’t always know.  It’s like real life, you don’t know the answer, you don’t know, God or life or your own psyche doesn’t have a magic wand and you ask something and all of a sudden receive the answer, it’s a process.  And, little by little, I can answer the questions of my characters predicaments and what they might reasonably come up with as a response to crises.

Question: How do you balance autobiography and fiction?

Anne Lamott:  Everybody assumes that almost everything I write about that has a teenager in it is a direct telling of something that Sam went through, which is not the case.  I mean, I’m the teenage girl drug addict.  I love drugs.  I smoked the non-habit-forming marijuana every day for about 20 years, and so people—I’m powerless over what other people assume to be either fact or not, and so people assume that stuff I write about in novels happened... and mostly the emotional truth of the characters are autobiographical because I’m the only person I know all that well, and mostly what happens in the novels never happened in real life. 

Then with “Imperfect Birds,” I had five young women who have all been very druggy, and have mostly grown out of it with one exception, and I did very long and extensive interviews with them and I would ask them, why would you do this with the guys, what do you get in return?  Why would you do that drug if it keeps leaving you so crazy and in so much trouble?  I know the answer to that because it’s mood altering and anything is better than feeling small and kind of afraid all the time.  

But I had these five sources that really helped me understand the psyche of the American druggy girl and a high-achieving druggy girl.  And then I have been a parent of a teenager, and I talked to a lot of the other parents and I said, why did we not—how did we not notice this or that or the other?  Why were we so afraid?  So, Sam has certainly given me bad, bad nights and left me wanting to just claw at my own throat with exasperation and a feeling that no worse parent had ever existed, except for maybe Jeffrey Dahmer’s mother. 

But I think that’s what all novelists do.  You draw on your own material and you talk to as many people as you can.

Recorded April 6, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen