Colum McCann on creating memorable characters, from Letters to a Young Writer

There are certain figurative bipeds still clucking around in my head. They come from the book Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, and they’re as alive as when I first read it in 2011. When I read his book Letters to a Young Writer, that came out April 6 of this year, I was taken away by his thoughts on character. Though considering McCann implanted characters in my head long ago, I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

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McCann writes early on: “Writing a character into being is like meeting someone you want to fall in love with.”

As a potential amour, here are somethings you should know about your character:

  • Their first memory
  • What did they have for breakfast? What did they want?
  • What does their handwriting look like?
  • Is there dirt under their fingernails?
  • Who did they vote for?
  • What’s the first thing they shoplifted?
  • What are they most guilty of?
  • What’s the texture of their footsteps.
  • The sound of their voice?

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If after these steps you’re still unsure what they’re all about, ask them why don’t I know you. Write the response letter for them. You may be amazed what you hear.

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What?? – Original photography!

My favorite quote from the book reached into the reason why a character bothers to tell a story at all:

“Do you know why the narrator is telling the story? Everyone tells their story for a reason. To heal, to murder, to steal, to re-create. To fall in love, to fall out of love. To annihilate. To titillate. And even when she tells the story just to make us laugh, the story tellers’ purpose generally lies beyond mere entertainment. Stories matter. They send our kids to wear. They open up our pockets. They break our hearts.”

Buy Letters to a Young Writer here and check out more reviews and interviews.

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