Gore Vidal famously said that every writer has a repertory company of players. He thought Shakespeare had about fifty, Hemingway only one, and himself around ten.
I found this quote while pulling together material for Writing Romantic Fiction and it has been swirling around in my mind ever since. If all writers have a repertory company, then I must have one, too. On a flight one morning, I drank coffee and stared out the window at clouds and sky and tiny box towns far below, and thought about that. Who are my characters?
Turns out Vidal was right. I can come up with a company of very specific characters. One major player is a version of Demeter, an earth mother who brings the spring. She likes to cook, and often grow things; she’s creative in some way. She tends to be tall or robust, with significant hair in some form. She is very often the main character in many of my women’s fiction novels, and was often the lead in my romances, as well. There are other leads, but this one tends to be my favorite.
I also discovered Persephone in the line-up, the lost child who needs help and mothering, often by the Demeter character. She’s often an adolescent, or motherless, and troubled in some way. She’s Portia in The Lost Recipe for Happiness, and Katie in How to Bake a Perfect Life and Natalie, the seven year old baby foodie in The Secret of Everything.
There are men, of course. The dark-haired (often curly-headed) man, often ethnic and serious or studious or even sad. He’s Julian in The Lost Recipe for Happiness, and Solomon in A Bed of Spices, and Isaiah in The Sleeping Night (playing opposite the lost, motherless Angel). I often write a beautiful, troubled, lost man who needs connection to make peace with—whatever. The Rebel/Rouge/Bad Boy with a heart of gold, who is Blue in In The Midnight Rain and Zeke in Breaking the Rules.
I have a very specific penchant for casting Sam Elliot, at many ages, in lots of roles. It’s not even conscious, really—I just notice that I’ll be writing along, and once again, Sam will be taking the role. The dad in this book, the lover in that, the friend in yet another.
I like a wise woman character, too, who is often—weirdly—a ghost. Maybe she represents my ancestors, my dead grandmother and other women who guided me. She’s vigorous and powerful and wise, and often quite beautiful, even in advanced age. She understands the world and her place in it, and often provides insight for the main character. In Lady Luck’s Map of Vegas, she’s a living breathing woman, Eldora, and not so much wise as experienced.
Often my sidekick characters are dogs or cats, which made me laugh. It’s true for many of us, though, isn’t it? We find connection and support in our pets. Animals can save us.
I wondered for awhile if exploring this idea would make me appear to be a hack in some way, if it would take away some of the pleasure of reading the work. But we are writers here, dissecting our own processes, and in the end, it was entirely too fascinating for me to leave it alone. Where is the power in knowing who the players are?
If I examine any of my novels, I find the repertory company changing roles, donning new clothes, reading lines for a new examination of the essential themes of my books
If I examine any of my novels, I find the repertory company changing roles, donning new clothes, reading lines for a new examination of the essential themes of my books—how do women have meaningful lives? How do we choose work, love, make connection, survive terrible things?
By identifying my repertory company, I can make better use of the actors, employ them with more accuracy, and also make sure I’m using them in ways that are not the same as all the other times I’ve used them. I can shake up the casting, turn it around. Perhaps Demeter becomes a man, or the troubled youth is an aging rock star or the wise woman is a beautiful child. If the players are small in number, perhaps you can begin to expand the company deliberately and thus increase the actors available for your stories, though if Hemingway’s cast was really only one actor, he seems to have done all right. (What do you think? Was Vidal right about Hemingway?)
Can you identify the members of your repertory company? If you are just starting out or don’t have enough books to decide, look to one of your favorite authors. How many characters can you identify?