Crazy characters. My family aside, I love creating them! One of the more popular questions I’m asked by book clubs is how I came up with the nutty ensemble in All the Lonely People. Where do they all come from? (My warped mind, thank you very much!)
In ATLP, the impetus for their development came from the storyline itself. After the death of her mother, my main character has a falling out with her remaining family and posts an ad on Craigslist for a new family with whom to share Christmas dinner. Who answers her ad? Well, maybe the best way to introduce them is with a long, direct quote from the book:
In less than twelve hours, more than two dozen lonely people have responded to my ad. I hunker down and begin to feverishly read. I immediately delete ten because they invite me to engage in various acts of perversion that would violate the sanctity of my marriage as well as most laws of state and physics. I delete twelve more because they are badly misspelled jokes, they are boring, their authors sound like serial killers, and/or they try to sell me Viagra or Jesus. But the remaining four have piqued my interest:
Hello, my name is Evelyn Richards, and I live here in Madison. I’m a 74-year-old widow, and I enjoy knitting, swimming, and welding. I’m a metal artist (primarily garden sculptures), but don’t worry, I won’t try to sell you any. I was just thinking of doing something different for the holidays this year, and I read your ad. What sort of Christmas get-together are you planning? I’m interested in learning more. Thank you in advance!
TESTING, TESTING, ONE TWO THREE! PLEASE COUNT ME IN ON THE X-MAS SHINDIG, WHAT A GREAT IDEA!!!!!! I AM ALSO BOYCUTTING MY FAMILY THIS YEAR, SO I THINK WE ARE ON THE SAME PAGE. I AM ALERGIC TO PEANUTS. ALSO, I HAVE TWO RECUE DOGS I CAN’T LEAVE HOME ALONE SO CAN I SUGGEST WE EAT AT TWO DOG CAFÉ? THAT WAY I CAN BRING MY DACHSHUNDS. ALSO, I KNOW THE OWNERS, THEY ARE GREAT AND MAKE A MEAN REUBEN--A REAL SERIEUS SANDWICH. SORY FOR THE ALL-CAPS AND BAD SPELLING, MY KEYBOARD IS GOOFY. MY NAME IS PAUL BY THE WAY. PAUL STANLEY. LIKE THE ULTRA-TALENTED GUITARIST IN KISS, BUT I DON’T LOOK ANYTHING LIKE HIM
Wow, I can’t believe I’m answering this…I guess I really don’t want to spend Christmas alone. This is the first time I’ve even used Craigslist (I always associated it with oddballs—sorry!), but something about your ad compelled me to answer. (You are serious, right?) I’m a grad student here in the molecular biology program, and my schedule won’t allow me to make the trip back to Fargo to see my family this year. My friends are all traveling or with their own families, and I just lost someone dear to me, so here I am, with that horrible power ballad “All by myself” stuck in my head. I am definitely not a fan of the Kardashians but I do like Bob Ross.
Sincerely, Alyssa P.
PS: Sorry if I got that song stuck in your head now, too.
Oh my dear, can I just tell you how happy I was to see your strange, wonderful, unconventional, refreshingly honest, perfectly timed invitation? So let’s see, I should tell you who I am. My name is Chris. My family disowned me after they learned I was transgender. Possibly perpetually pre-op, unless I win the lottery. And honestly, perhaps I had clues that coming out to them would go badly (what, tell your extended relatives who believe the earth is less than 6,000 years old that you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body and you wear more mascara and perfume on the weekends than your sisters do? What could go wrong? I mean, seriously!) I sing at various clubs on the weekends, and I am a well-camouflaged office drone during the week. I typically share the holidays with friends, but I’m fresh out of a long-term relationship, and unfortunately, he stole most of them in the split. And to be quite honest, I need a small break from the rest of them. So it’s time to make some new ones! I love, love, LOVE to cook, and I would be happy to bring a dish to pass. Are we doing potluck? Looking forward to meeting you and the other lost souls!
I had so much fun inventing this motley crew! Just from their personal introductions, I hope you get a feel for how different they all are, how crazy each is in his or her own way. (Aren’t we all?) I pulled them from opposite corners of my brain to play off of one another’s strengths and weaknesses and help each other recognize and overcome their personal obstacles. They are all unique in both external and internal attributes, because who wants to read a story populated by fifteen eczema-and anxiety-prone racist welders named Harold? I set the basic plot framework, but the story didn’t live and breathe for me until I gave the keys to the characters, allowing them to drive the story.
If you want to make your characters not only come to life but also defy stereotype and assumption, Nancy Kress’s Dynamic Characters is a fabulous book to have on-hand. I’ll probably give it a re-read before I sink my teeth into my novel-in-progress again this summer.
What are some of your favorite ensemble character novels?
Jess Riley is the author of three novels (Driving Sideways, All the Lonely People, and Mandatory Release) and one novella (Closer than they Appear). When she's not writing, she's raising Monarch caterpillars in her kitchen, watching MST3K, trying to get her Cairn Terrier to stop barking, or foisting vegetarian meals on her husband.