Originally posted on Michael Runs the Gamut on December 7, 2013
[Comments from 2021 are in italics, enclosed in square brackets, like this one.]
Okay, by this time I had six main characters (a lot to juggle, I know), but with NaNoWriMo just weeks away at this point, my biggest worry was finding a way for these characters to inhabit a location (possibly on the butterfly’s route) and have a role to play in the story. At first, I thought I would start with the beginning and end of the route (someone could be in Canada to witness the butterflies lift off in early September, and someone else could be at the end of the journey in Mexico). I chose to have a school teacher in Ontario, Canada, with a vital interest in butterflies, so I made her a science teacher, and named her Sally Benson. The person most logically who would be in Mexico would be the butterfly researcher, I named him Michael Shaw (my first name and my mother’s maiden name), and decided he would work at Rice University in Houston. Two down.
In thinking about our summer vacations along Interstate 81, I remembered a lovely small town in Virginia named Abingdon, and thought I could put one of the characters there [I eventually placed that character in a fictional town near Abingdon, for reasons that will become obvious when you read the novel]. Abingdon is roughly 900 miles away from Presqu’ile Provincial Park, where I was going to have the butterflies lift off in the novel, and also happens to be just over 1,000 miles from Houston, making it a nice mid-point between the characters from Houston and the Canadian character. So I made the Abingdon character a deejay, and I decided to call him Rock Jackson [his real first name isn’t revealed until a crucial point in the book]. That gave me three locales to work with.
A thought occurred to me partway through that process. All the characters didn’t need to be static, some could be on the move. I actually already had one character constantly on the move anyway. The astronaut (unnamed so far) would be circling the Earth every ninety minutes. I originally envisioned him as a sort of Greek chorus, looking down from the International Space Station, commenting on everything happening below (that changed considerably before I was done). I thought another on-the-move character could be on vacation, traveling along I-81, so I decided to let the actress be the vacationer.
I also added another character at this point, because (since the characters were all separated from each other), a lot of the novel might be in their heads, but I thought that having a couple converse and interact, while stuck in a car together on a long driving trip, would be more interesting than one person driving alone. I gave the actress a husband, bringing my total character count up to seven. I made him a middle school teacher, which gave me two teacher characters at this point (one in Canada and one from Houston). I called the married couple Dick and Jane Jarvis. I started out using Dick and Jane as placeholder names, thinking I would change them eventually, but they grew on me (and were among the few characters who didn’t undergo either a name or gender change before the novel was done). Most of the characters and locations were settled. I only had one more to place geographically, the quilter.
I now had two characters at the beginning location for the migration (Canada, a science teacher and the butterfly), one at the mid-point (Abingdon), a fourth circling the Earth a couple hundred miles above us, and also had a married couple from Houston traveling along that route. Where could I put the quilter? I thought briefly about making her an Amish quilter, and putting her in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area. It was an area Minay and I visited nearly every summer, partly so she could browse the quilt shops there and buy fabric for her own quilts. I thought the idea was good, but not as good as it could be. The more I thought about her, the more I saw a woman who wasn’t from that area originally, but went there because she loved quilting so much, and was trying to get away from her troubles back home. Stella Lambert, my quilter, had arrived. She was going to be a quilter who left Dallas because of the memories of her dead husband, and had run away to Amish country, the land of the “real” quilters, never imagining she wouldn’t be accepted into the local community.
My cast of characters was complete, or so I thought.
Once NaNoWriMo was underway, something happened during jury duty that created another character; and mid-way through the month, a trip to the Grand Canyon solidified who that person was, but still someone I thought would be a minor character (she expanded considerably over the next several years). I’ll write about all of that in the next post, The Plot Thickens (A Little).
Do you settle on your plot before you try to populate your story [I find that hard to do], or do your characters usually come first? Do plot and character breed at the same time for you? Opinions? Variations?
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