I recently attended my 35th college reunion. Of course it was fascinating to catch up with people I hadn’t seen in five or ten or 35 years, to spend three days eating and drinking and dancing and reminiscing. But what struck me most about seeing people at my reunion was the incredible window it provided into how character—the real, genuine character of real people—develops over the years. No one there felt any need to impress anyone. Instead, we all talked honestly about the successes we’d enjoyed, the failures we’d endured, and the losses we’d survived. Just the fact that we had thus far navigated a world that is often “violent and mercurial,” to use Tennessee Williams’ phrase, gave us a commonality of experience we all understood.
The people at my reunion were doctors, lawyers, social workers, artists, teachers, economists, artists, and travelers. Some were happily married, with kids attending prestigious colleges. Some were widowed, or divorced, or childless, or struggling to help a troubled child. Some were at the peaks of their careers; some were unemployed. Many had buried parents or were caring for aging parents or were watching parents slide into illness or dementia. Some had lost spouses; some had lost children. This is life; these are the realities that forge character.
It made me think about the process of forging characters in fiction. Unlike many authors, I do not write lengthy backstories for my characters that never make it into my novels. Nor do I make lists of my characters’ favorite foods and colors and hobbies, or write out answers to lists of 35 Questions You Must Ask Your Characters. For me, characters grow organically, as they do in real life. If I start out knowing everything about them, I can’t be surprised. Real people often surprise me; my characters should, too.
The questions we asked each other at my reunion, 35 years after graduation, were as good a roadmap as any for finding a way into character. Where are you living now? How’s your work going? How is your family? What happened to your mom/partner/sister/spouse/roommate/best friend? Have you ever heard from that guy you dated sophomore year who never comes to reunions?
The answers were stories, or the beginnings of stories. I left my medical practice after 25 years and went to work helping people who don’t have medical insurance. I moved to live closer to my parents because my mom was sick, and then she and my dad died within a month of each other and I thought I’d be over it by now but I’m not. My son is a dancer but he suffered a devastating back injury and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Yes, my college boyfriend wrote me five years ago and said his wife became an alcoholic and he went through a painful divorce and he’s trying to rebuild his life in a new marriage.
The common theme in every narrative was loss. I’m not saying my former classmates are a grim bunch—in fact they’re some of the most resilient, optimistic, creative people I’ve ever met. Our lives have been filled with gains, too—the blessings of children and grandchildren, deep friendships, faith, work that makes a difference, promotions, career pinnacles, travel, beloved homes. But now that we’re all in our fifties, we’ve all experienced the kind of losses that sharpen the senses and heighten awareness, the kind of losses that shape who we become.
In my creative writing workshops, I teach kids that stories are about a character wanting something she can’t have, and the obstacles she has to overcome to get it (or not). But if I were going to be really honest, I’d teach them that stories are about a character wanting something because they’ve lost something. Loss lies behind most desire.
Years ago I interviewed the filmmaker Ken Burns, whose mother died when he was 12. He was talking to a psychologist friend once about his work, about the documentaries he had made about the Civil war and baseball and jazz. “Look at what you do,” the friend said. “You bring Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong back to life. Who do you think you’re really trying to wake up?”
So ask your characters the questions you might ask of them at a reunion in the future. What happened to that woman you fell in love with? Where are your kids? How are your parents doing? What you’re really asking is: What have you lost? What have you gained? How has it changed you? How have you survived? What do you long for now?
And in those answers, you’ll find the heart and soul of your character.