How to Write Strong Characters: Choosing Who to Write
One of the frightening results of writing is how, even when you’re describing a stranger you’ve met, the qualities of those in your own life seep into them. Also frightening is how those characters come to life and remain in you as much a part of your life as your real friends and family.
Here is a character I wrote of in “Chasing Aphrodite” :
“Across the road, at the edge of the beach, a gnarled old African woman, shoeless and dressed in shabby, faded brown, sat cross-legged in front of a large sawn-off metal container. It had once transported ‘ ghee” (East Indian clarified butter), a two-foot square cube, still bearing the imprint of its importer tattooed onto the greasy, silver metal. It was filled with smouldering charcoal, upon which lay three grilled sweet yams.
He pointed at them and asked ” Hapa begani ? ” (How much?)
“Shilingi miasaba, Ndugu.” (Seven hundred shillings, brother.)
The night before, a bottle of coke at the Kilimanjaro had cost him 4,000 shillings (about $2.5 US). His nanima (grandmother) would have lamented the days when the same bottle had cost no more than one.
How could this woman support herself and God knows how many other mouths she had waiting to feed at the end of the day with the takings of this meagre business? He gave her 1,000 shillings. She began to cry. Her back stayed ram-rod straight, her face impassive but for a trickle of tears. He looked down, suddenly embarrassed, and quickly withdrew.”
If ever I had to make a speech on receiving an award for my book, I would dedicate my thanks to that “gnarled, old, African woman”. Africa at that time was suffering from pandemic aids, parents were dying in their twenties, leaving kids, less than teens, in the hands of their aging grandparents.
It was characters such as the yam seller that inspired me to write, to have them memorialized for their actions and choices in life. Who would pay any attention to such a character while travelling ? Who would write about her. To me, a life well led is one of service to those around you without second thought. To choose that duty instinctively without question in the same way as you breathe.
Would you choose the same life path day in day out ,watch yourself being ground down in order to nurture and protect another? And without question?
I’m reminded of a statistic I read that money transfers from migrant workers to their impoverished families back home amount to over US $500 billion- five times the value of aid from first world countries to the underdeveloped. Through my Filipina wife, I have met Filipinas, well educated at home come to Canada and spend the rest of their lives nannying to support extended families back home. They have nothing left for themselves neither in savings or building a comfortable life for themselves. Their daily goal is to finance the education of their younger siblings so they in turn can enjoy a better life than those nannies have in Canada. To sacrifice so much with no second thought baffles me even today.
One of those saints I look up to (and perhaps what impels me to write about characters such as the yam seller) was my English mother Flo.
Her family lived from hand to mouth. At least one member of the family was out of work. Yet, when they realized my divorced, single-parent mother couldn’t look after me, took me in as one of their own for a dozen years, giving me everything I needed. Why do people give so generously of themselves? And so naturally.
Curiously, on looking back, without my realizing it at the time, the above yam seller seems to be a composite of my late English foster mother and my ailing Indian mother. Was it coincidence?
Flo, my English mother took pity on Rosie, my Indian mum and on me. Rosie had divorced my dad in Africa and landed in England with no means to look after herself, let alone me.
Flo took me as one of her own, despite living in chronic financial straits. That sense of duty, of doing the right thing, was permeated into me, not by words, but her deeds. The yam seller reminded me so much of that duty of caring for others almost blindly, never questioning the cost of her commitment to do the right thing, be it her or, say the Filipina in another story, who sent all her money back home to support her family, while she starved and worked thirteen days out of fourteen.
Rosie was extraordinarily proud and hell bent on proving her own success, financially and socially. It was her “ramrod back” and “impassive face” that dressed the tears of the yam seller.
Have you ever seen the ghost of a past friend or family in a stranger across the street? Has that frisson in you encouraged you to cross the street and take a gamble to converse? What did you gain in that encounter?