I direct Brooklyn College's Fiction MFA, and recently Michael Cunningham spoke to our students about how to build a story out of a character. Who is your character? the writer should ask. Where did she grow up? What kind of work does she do? Does she like spinach? Does she sleep on her back, her stomach, or her side? It may seem inconsequential to know (much less describe) how a character sleeps, but not if the gesture is laden with meaning, as all gestures in fiction should be. Does the character who sleeps on her side do so because she doesn't like the smell of her husband's breath? Does she do so because she hears better out of one ear than the other and if she sleeps on her good ear she won't be able to hear when her child cries out at night?
In my novel Matrimony, Julian meets his eventual-wife Mia after having spotted her in their college facebook. He dubs her Mia from Montreal. I wrote that phrase instinctively, probably because my own girlfriend freshman year of college was named Laura, and my roommate called her Laura from Larchmont. I liked the alliterative sound of those words. Before I wrote Mia from Montreal, I had no idea where Mia came from. But she had to come from somewhere, and Montreal seemed as good a place as any. But then I had to own up to what I'd written. How did Mia's family get to Montreal? Had they lived there for centuries? Were they expatriates, and if so, from where? And how did Mia end up back in the States, in western Massachusetts, for college? I could have chosen Mia from Madagascar or Mia from Maryland, and if I'd chosen Mia from Maryland, there might have been, for all I know, a long section in Matrimony about her family's tangled relationship with the clamming industry. But she wasn't Mia from Maryland, she was Mia from Montreal, and so I discovered that her father had gone to teach physics at McGill, forcing her mother to abandon her career in the process, and that Mia, out of loyalty to her mother, who had since died, decided to retrace her mother's steps back to Massachusetts. I knew none of this until I wrote the words Mia from Montreal, just as the writer who has a character who sleeps on her side doesn't know why she sleeps on her side until she does so.
My graduate students often tell me they have trouble with plot, but what they're really telling me is they have trouble with character. I remind my students to ask themselves a hundred questions about their characters. Better yet, they should ask themselves a thousand questions, because in the answers to those questions lie the seeds of a narrative.