by Mary Troy & Diana Davis
Part I: Pink Body Suit
by Mary Troy
When my first book came out, my sister-in-law was upset. She thought writers used their family and friends for their characters, but she did not see herself in any story. Sure, she admitted, she recognized her body type in one story, and her hairstyle on a character in another story, but she had hoped for more. I told her she was right—we writers do use our families and our friends. I promised my sister-in-law I would use her more, that she would see herself in future stories. What I did not say was her inability to hold her alcohol was a dominant force in another story in the book—how could she have missed that?
We also use people we do not know. On the first day of an undergraduate beginning fiction writing class I taught a few years ago, a student showed up in a skin-tight, pink, glittery body suit. She was not a young woman either. I have wanted to use her ever since. Was it the only thing she had clean? Did she believe this was a dance studio and not a creative writing course? Was she proud that at her age she still looked good in it? Was it her lucky body suit? Was it a dare, a bet? She finished the class dressed mostly in the jeans and t-shirts of her peers, so I can only assume she wanted to blend in and may have thought all the other students would be wearing body suits. I hope to live long enough to use her in a story, knowing full well if I do, the body suit may not show up in the final version.
At readings people ask if my writing is autobiographical, and I deny it, though it is of course. The pink body suit woman in my story will be me if I were dressed that way for a class.
MARY TROY (MFA University of Arkansas) is the author of three short story collections: Cookie Lily, 2004, The Alibi Cafe and other stories, 2003, and the collection Joe Baker is Dead, 1998, which was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award. She has published stories widely in The Greensboro Review, Sou’wester, The American Literary Review, Boulevard, the Chicago Tribune, and other journals. Her essays have appeared in anthologies and newspapers. She won a Nelson Algren award, and had thrice been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. Her first novel, Beauties, released last fall, was named 2010 “Best Book” in the literary fiction category by USA Book News. Mary is director of the Master of Fine Arts Program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and serves as editor for Natural Bridge, a journal of contemporary literature. Mary was the keynote speaker for the MWG 2011
Part II: Developing Characters by Diana Davis, Walrus Contributor
by Diana Davis
Mary Troy is one of my favorite writers, and she has the most wonderful sense of humor which she uses to teach her classes. Although the piece above in written tongue-in-cheek, Mary is telling you the truth and is answering one of the most frequently asked questions that writers get, “Where do you find the characters that you use in your stories?” If writers are being truthful they will answer, “We can only write about character traits that we have heard about, imagined, or witnessed in ourselves or others.”
We select notable things that the librarian said, or mannerisms from our great aunt or the snide remarks Pastor uttered when he didn’t realize that he was being overheard. Writers tell readers about their characters, including the thoughts, feelings and incidents that the character would not have revealed about themselves. For example: While sitting at a stoplight on Forsythe and Hanley, I saw a distinguished gray-haired gentleman pick his nose, pull out a glob of dried mucus, examine his finger intently and then put that finger into his mouth. I discreetly looked away; but I later noted the incident in my “ideas” folder.
I am an unabashed eavesdropper. When I dine alone, I cannot help hearing folks seated in the next booth. You would be amazed at what a couple will reveal when they feel “enclosed in the safety of a booth,” (without realizing that my head is only 12 inches from theirs). For example: I heard a woman’s steely voice accuse:
“I saw you staring at Sue’s boobs last night,” to which he replied is a forced even voice,
“Yes, she looks great showing her breasts, and then there’s you— wearing ragged tee-shirts to bed.” I could imagine her grinding her teeth.
“Well, if you didn’t come to bed with breath that smells like a skunk crawled in your mouth and farted, perhaps I’d dress more provocative.”
What he replied is unprintable. But it’s in my ideas folder.
Writers have the right to mix and match traits, costumes, and personalities to suit their characters. What is imperative, however, is that once the character gets finalized, that he remain that way all through the story until a significant event happens to change him. To have my characters remain true to themselves, I use this bit of writer’s advice:
If your writing will involve a lot of characters or if you are going to have frequent interruptions, then make a list of your characters and their traits, i.e., John Bullock:
6’ 4” tall, weight 270, athletic build, dark brown hair, brown eyes, a construction contractor, owner, sometimes wears business suits to meet clients, but more usually wears business casual when at the office, dons khaki work clothes, work gloves, and steel-tipped boots for field work. Has worked with enough tycoons to have picked polished manners, but gets down and dirty with the workmen because that is where he started, adores his wife and little baby girl, loathes his father-in-law who owned the company originally and whom, although John bought him out, still tries to dictate how to run the company. If you, too, follow this advice, you’ll be safe.