On writing characters (William Kennedy)


Ironweed (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a Paris Review interview (which I love, by the way), William Kennedy (author of Ironweed) gave some pointed remarks on a topic that’s often on my mind when I write: characters. He mixes in some opinions on plot, while he’s at it. He starts in with a contrast:

I recall Nabokov looked on his characters as his galley slaves. But they do have a way of asserting themselves. Hemingway’s line was that everything changes as it moves; and that that is what makes the movement that makes the story. Once you let a character speak or act you now know that he acts this way and not another. You dwell on why this is so and you move forward to the next page. This is my method. I’m not interested in formulating a plot to which characters are added like ribbons on a prize cow. The character is the key and when he does something which is new, something you didn’t know about or expect, then the story percolates. If I knew, at the beginning, how the book was going to end, I would probably never finish. I knew that Legs Diamond was going to die at the end of the book, so I killed him on page one.

I like that a lot. My most rewarding stories are exactly of that kind, where the character does something I “didn’t know about or expect.” Who the devil are you? I wonder, and sit forward in my chair, and type faster.


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