Making Fictional Characters Real

Which fictional literary character had his obituary published in the New York Times?

I’m thinking of Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot, whose death was announced on August 6, 1975 (https://www.nytimes.com/1975/08/06/archives/hercule-poirot-is-dead-famed-belgian-detective-hercule-poirot-the.html). Although very popular with readers, Dame Christie found her creation “insufferable and an egocentric creep.” The result was the book Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. Time to move on.

If such an obituary in a major publication sounds strange, it shouldn’t be. A well-crafted character should seem real. One of the keys to successful writing is to create characters who appear so lifelike they in effect dictate their stories to you. I remember listening to a presentation by Sherri Szeman, author of the unconventional novel The Kommandant’s Mistress about a Nazi commander of a death camp who takes a young Jewish girl as his lover. She described how she was unable to get to sleep one night because he kept complaining she had exaggerated his alcohol consumption. She had to stay up late and rewrite the passage to get him out of her head. And a novelist friend would actually go on shopping trips to buy clothes for her characters (or at least that’s the excuse she gave her husband).

So the next time you read a story and find yourself emotionally attached to a character, be it Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, thank the author. That’s how it should be.

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