Your Repertory Company of Characters

three furies by mandy greer
three furies by mandy greer

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?

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve only written two novels and although one is a historical and the other a contemporary, I see the parallels. Siblings matter hugely. As does the concept of home.

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  2. says

    Fascinating concept. And it makes sense. I can see it in what I’m working on at the moment. I’ve taken my heroine in the trilogy, swapped out her hair, and asked her to be grittier as well as more vulnerable. She’s going to have to dig deep for this role. She can’t just be kickass this time. This time she’s on a tightrope between revealing beautiful but fragile crystal and durable but repellent stainless steel. If she pulls it off, she could steal the show.

    Thanks for offering such an interesting concept, Barbara. You’re right, it’s way too interesting to ignore. Well worthy of exploration.

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  3. says

    I was just talking about this to a friend last night! In The Glass Wives there a strong presence of the main character’s Bubbe (Yiddish for grandmother) although she’s not alive. Her memory and advice always bubble up. In my second novel, The Good Neighbor, the main character’s next door neighbor is an 85 year old woman who has been a lifelong friend and surrogate mother. In my WIP, there’s an elderly innkeeper who seems to need a lot of help and care, when it fact, it’s really she who is doing the helping.

    I never see faces of my characters. No doppelgängers, etc. I see hair, clothes, limbs, but no faces.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Barbara!

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  4. says

    Thank you for this post Barbara.

    I’ve been worrying about this question for a while. I see my short story repertory company very clearly and worry that I’m falling into a same-old same-old pattern, even though the stories are different. Certainly not good for a collection of short stories (or is it? I’ve read quite a few collections where the same cast reappear in a majority of the stories).

    I like your suggestions as to how to expand one’s company, both through adding new characters and mixing up the ones already present. I think I’ll still have to write intuitively for my first draft of a story (or I’ll never have a story!) but will then have to apply myself more consciously to developing different kinds of characters. Or do you think it might be better to start with different characters?

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    • says

      I suspect if you try to start with different characters, you’ll still end up writing from your company of players. That’s how it is. The value is not necessarily in variety for the sake of variety, but in awareness of what makes our work particularly ours.

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  5. says

    Wow, what an interesting way to look at things! I don’t have enough of a body of work to have found many recurring characters, although the protagonists in my short stories do have a lot in common.

    But far from this making you a hack, I think that instead it creates a continuity of experience for your readers (for lack of better phrase). Not that it makes your stories predictable, but there’s a comfort in picking up one of your books, as the reader anticipates the type and quality of experience he or she is about to have. Having read a lot of your books, I had simply attributed that to your skill and literary style – but now I see it goes deeper than that.

    I’ve spent the last couple of years studying the use of structure in fiction, and while I’ve examined some of the popular character archetypes, I hadn’t considered looking within for the characters who organically occur (and reoccur) in my mind.

    But I’m gonna start doing that now. Thank you!

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  6. says

    I love this, Barbara! I love that you did it for your own books, and it’s so interesting to read about what you discovered. And I love that you brought this idea to us, to do with our own writing–thank you.

    I have thought about whether I’m on a repeat loop for certain character types, but haven’t set aside time to make a list like this. I will now.

    Dara Marks and Deb Norton would be thrilled to see this post, and for anyone interested in delving more into how mythology works its way into story, whether intentionally or not, Deb and Dara teach a terrific class on “Engaging the Feminine Heroic.” All about how Demeter and Persephone are in every great story–and they can each be male characters too, of course.

    I took their class/writing retreat at Hedgebrook last year and I know they are running it again this fall (https://www.hedgebrook.org/page.php?pageid=86) (I figure it’s okay to link to a nonprofit but defer to the Lord High Executioners of WU on whether they wipe the link).

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  7. says

    Interesting post. There’s a book by Victoria Schmidt called 45 Master Characters and the whole premise is that there are 45 characters who we write in different ways to fit our needs.

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  8. says

    I had a thought. I’m reading Nick Hornby’s Ten Years In The Tub, and just finished his review of David Copperfield. In it, Hornby says Dickens is thought to have created 13,000 characters. But, surely, many must fit into a small number of types. I wonder if anyone has thought to categorize them? Great topic for a Dickens scholar!

    Of course, since I am no Dickens scholar myself, this may have already been done, and more than once.

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  9. says

    PS – I think Hemingway had more than one character, although his protagonists did tend to be cut from the same cloth.

    But I also think people who get caught up in either the macho aspect of Hemingway’s writing or his uber-spare prose miss out on his skill at crafting moments of pure tragedy. He’s one of the first authors whose work actually made me cry. Tough guy or not, the man knows how to evoke emotions from the reader.

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  10. says

    Barbara–
    Thanks for an excellent post. And although you mention mythical characters, thanks for not casting your topic in terms of myth (I think that one’s overworked).
    When I develop characters, I do my best to make them stand on their own two feet. I don’t want them stepping conveniently into the shoes of other characters in the reader’s mind. Yes, my characters will suggest those in other writers’ fictions, but the degree to which they don’t is a way to measure success. At least for me.
    Case in point: the “bad guy” in my suspense novel, The Anything Goes Girl. He is certainly bad enough, but he finesses any sense of guilt by thinking in terms of destiny. When he kills, he’s just an instrument of fate. The victim’s time is up, the dice have turned up snake eyes, etc. And he’s also tired of the “work” he does. He wants a regular, corporate job that fits with “a mortgage and a dog.” Added to this is an interest in looking good, dressing well. Is he using the concept of fate and the purchase of new suits to cover up his buried sense of being evil? Maybe, but he’s never going to ask those questions of himself. That’s left for the reader.
    About Hemingway and Gore Vidal: IMP, Vidal was one of the greatest American essayists. But he was much too self-consciously clever to produce novels with wide or lasting appeal. Hemingway was capable of doing everything right and everything wrong–and did both.

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  11. says

    I agree with you, Keith. Hemingway polarizes writers, and there are a lot haters, especially among women. I do not always connect with his work, but I love a lot of it anyway. A Moveable Feast is one of my favorite books of all time.

    I think Vidal was sneering. Were they contemporaries?

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  12. says

    Based on Julie’s question about Dickens, I Googled archetypes in Dickens and came up with this article: https://suite.io/rachel-mccrum/1xer2h0.

    Evidently Dickens had his own rep company to work with. Thanks for the insight, Barbara, to reading as well as writing. I’m thinking that understanding one’s cast of characters is part of understanding your writing voice.

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  13. says

    A thoughtful post, thank you Barbara. I have written a few manuscripts (none published) and can identify some repertory characters: the ambivalent youth, the reluctant hero, the flawed role model, the villain who seeks (but is afraid of) redemption, the skilled manipulator who is in fact a puppet, the benevolent master plotter. Just a few I can put my finger on right away – I am ignoring the dozens of secondary characters I often bring on stage, though your post now has me reflecting on whether in might want to vary them just in case I notice overlap.

    I wonder if size of a repertory set has any correlation to how well a writer has stepped outside of their own biases about the diversity of their fellow human beings? It would seem (to me at least, and I am not free of biases) that one who has observed and empathized with his or her fellow man and woman would have a broad scope of understanding how many types of people there are in the world (it does not surprise me that Shakespeare had 50). Curious about your thoughts on this, and thanks for a great tidbit to carry into my writing reflections.

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    • says

      I would agree, John, that wider experiences and a great ability to observe probably adds to the writer’s cast of actors. Perhaps there’s an in-built talent for it, too.

      Great addition to the discussion, thanks.

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  14. says

    Barbara-

    Great post. Repertory charters? A great way to look at one’s supporting cast. Like others here, I’ve also seen breakdowns based on archetypes, fairy tales and mythology. You could also look at secondary characters as a hockey team: attacker, defense, goalie, enforcer and so on.

    Whether trickster, traveler, trollop, Cinderella or Gretsky, it’s indeed useful to label secondary characters…so long as it’s not to limit them but to see their potential.

    Okay, I made up that thing about hockey teams. But, hey, if it’s useful…

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  15. says

    Great post – thank you. I loved the main character in my second book. He was so broken and messed up. I realized by the end I liked him so much because I connected with him on every level. Funny thing is, he’s a he and I’m a she. Funny what we end up infusing into our stories. I’m learning how to build a cast of characters and it’s so much fun. I love how they all play off each other. Sometimes I feel a bit schizophrenic though…

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    • says

      That feeling of schizophrenia goes with the job, I think. And don’t you sometimes wonder what is in other people’s heads? What are they thinking about if not all these characters?

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  16. says

    A few weeks ago, when I was nearing completion of my current novel and starting to outline the next, I noticed that every book I’ve written, half-written, or considered writing features a Sherlock Holmes type character: highly intelligent, eccentric, unconventional, and unsentimental. The same archetype features prominently in my all-time favorite books, movies, and TV shows: House, Bones, X-Files, etc.

    The rest of my cast may rotate, but Sherlock Holmes is always there. I don’t even write mysteries.

    Every writer creates characters that represent their ideals and themselves. My ideal person, male or female, is a lot like Sherlock Holmes (minus the crack addiction). Barbara, your ideal woman seems to be wise and maternal, while your ideal man is Sam Elliot :p

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