The Origins of Characters

Today I am pleased to welcome my first guest blogger: Erica Bauermeister, author of The School of Essential Ingredients. Take it away, Erica . . .

I was 41 when my first character talked to me.  I had never had imaginary friends as a child, and had always been supremely jealous of authors who talked about their characters as if they were friends, three-dimensional people who lived in their own reality of the author’s imagination.

But when I was in my forties, something changed.  We had just moved back to Seattle from Italy, and there was a part of me that truly missed seeing the world through the vision of another culture, another viewpoint.  Perhaps fiction was a way to continue having that experience.

Perhaps it was simply that my children were growing older and there was space in my imagination.  All I know is that I took a cooking class and suddenly was filled with a vision of a novel about 8 people and their teacher who come together through the act of preparing food. Over the next few years, the characters showed up one by one.  I didn’t know where they came from; I was just grateful for their presence.

But something interesting happened the other day at a reading.  We were talking about one of my characters in The School of Essential Ingredients, a woman named Charlie.  I love Charlie. She is bold and strong, deeply and completely her own person, the most fictional of my fictional characters.   At one point in the book, Charlie, who is about to have a double mastectomy, has a glass-blower take a mold of her breasts so she can have the shapes made into wine glasses. “Where did you get that idea?” someone in the audience asked me.

I said I had no idea. It had simply arrived on the page. I remembered the shock I had felt as I read the words I had written.

The person in the audience mentioned that it made him think of Marie Antoinette – how she had done something similar and how that was the legend behind the origin of champagne glasses.

A small bell rang in my memory.  Oh yes, I remembered that story.  I had heard it in high school, back in the time when we all were growing breasts, or not.  I had loved that story.

Later, I thought more about Charlie, about the parts of her that I loved, so many of which seemed to have come from nowhere, landing in moments of small surprise on the page. Charlie had always felt as if she was a gift from somewhere beyond myself, and yet now I wonder if she might also have been a gift from some small, forgotten corner of my own brain, back in that place where we store the bits and pieces of our lives that are too precious to let go and yet which have no particular box to hold them – until, of course, we create a character.

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