Tea Party: Listening to Your Characters

In her wonderful craft of writing book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, “Just don’t pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don’t. Stay open to them. It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple.”

I’m a nonfiction writer. Oh, I can write “creative nonfiction” that draws closely on my personal experiences or personal stories others tell me, but when it comes to writing fiction, I become terrified. Why? Because I can’t seem to conjure up characters. I’ve done lots of exercises. I’ve read all kinds of books about characterization. I’ve studied how successful authors develop their characters. I’ve even taught other people to develop characters and am a successful editor, able to help others with their characters. I know the theory. I recognize good characterization and can analyze and make helpful suggestions to other writers. But when it comes right down to it, I freeze when it is time to create my own characters.

But if Anne Lamott is right (and I know she is, because I’ve heard this theory and seen it put in practice by good writers and even taught it), I shouldn’t even have to create characters, other than in the most simple, shallow terms. I can take a look at my proposed plot (or even just start writing those things, if I’m in a more pantser than plotter mood) and toss in some character that will fit the setting and mood and help move the plot forward. Pick some name out of the air (don’t worry; it can be easily be changed later — thank you, Word Find and Replace!). Have the character do some action that keeps things going … and keep my ears and eyes open and at some way along the process, I’ll hear that character tell me what she (or he) wants to do, thinks, hopes for, cares about (or doesn’t), believes in, fears; I’ll hear her share her good qualities and her bad ones; I’ll even hear him tell me what he needs to do next and where this story really should be going. Right? Easy, right?

Or maybe not. For me, anyway.

This morning, I looked once more at this quote: “It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple.” And a picture of an amazing little character in my own life flashed into my mind. My daughter, Sarah, when she was just a tot. Growing up in a tri-lingual environment, her language was impossible for most of us (other than her sister, a couple years older) to understand. English at home, French “Sesame Street” (the only TV program she was interested in) and Inuvialuktun at the daycare. Yep, a really interesting combination. But it didn’t interfere with her character creation at all.

Sarah loved Barbie dolls. We had a dozen or so, and she’d use a book or other object for a table, place a doll-sized tea set around the edges of it, and place all the Barbie dolls around it. And then they’d have a tea party and a wonderful conversation. For an hour, or two, or three, or more. Every doll had a different personality, a different voice, a different laugh or cry, a different name. All obvious by the “voice” my little gal gave each one as their conversation carried on, hour after hour. Wouldn’t it have been amazing if I’d been able to understand Frengluktan and listen in to their individual stories? (And why, oh why didn’t I think to take some video?)

But obviously, my little two year old (who still talks a mile a minute thirty-some years later) had no difficulty with characters. She’d have one doll chatter away, then she’d stop, tilt her head, listen a moment, and move to another doll and have her pick up the conversation. Round and round and round the tea party table. Some years later, when she learned to draw and write, she still had no difficulty with listening to her characters (or understanding their accents and wording) and letting them lead the way, as this example from when she was perhaps 20 years old amply illustrates. And she was just doing that for fun.

Oh … fun! Tea parties and fun! Inner child time! I bet I could let go and do that. After all, those Barbies are still in boxes up in the top corner of the closet all these years later. And I can zip down to the dollar store and pick up a child size tea set. I’m out of here. My ears open, theories cast aside, adventure on my horizon … I can do this, yes I can!