One Thousand Words on Book Characters that are Old Friends

I spent the day reading half of Armistead Maupin’s Mary Ann in Autumn, the latest in the Tales of the City series.

It sounds like a wildly lazy and unproductive Sunday, and it was I suppose. But it felt more like spending an afternoon with old friends.

(Ok, that was weird. My cursor just started moving across the screen, slowly and steadily like the pointer on an Ouija board. Creepy!)

If you’re not familiar with the Tales of the City books, they are about a group of characters that lived at 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco. The series starts in the seventies and this latest book is set in present time, so they cover the character’s entire lifetimes. There’s a mini-series, or maybe it’s several movies, too but the books have them beat.

I’ve always had a lot of respect for authors. I rather hold them in awe, to tell the truth. But as I’ve started writing a little bit, I’ve been thinking a great deal about their processes too. As I’m reading, I’ll wonder how long the book took to write, or if the author created an outline first before they began writing. And I’ll wonder what it’s like to spend a long period of time with the characters.

Just the silly little bits and pieces I’ve been writing have caused me to think about my characters often. I wonder how they would react in a situation or what they would think of a headline. I can’t begin to imagine how much time is devoted to that kind of thinking what writing an actual novel, much less eight novels all with the same cast of characters. It’s like creating an entire world.

Armistead Maupin has been writing these books since 1978. He must be so fully immersed in the lives of the Tales of the City characters that they’re like his family. How does he remember all the details?

As I am reading, I keep imagining this giant, complicated chart in Mr. Maupin’s study. (I don’t even know if he has a study, but he seems like the type of author that would.) It takes up a whole wall, like a huge interconnected spider web.

At the center is the location, 28 Barbary Lane, because it is as much of a character as the human beings are, and Mrs. Madrigal, the building’s owner.

In the next ring or layer are all the other central characters, Mouse and Mary Ann and others. There are lines connecting them to each other, with notes about their relationships and lives.

I probably got this idea from the sex chart Alice makes in the first season of The L Word, but it makes sense. How else would he keep track of everything all these years?

(By the way, if you happen to know Mr. Maupin and know that he doesn’t have a big spider web chart, or even if you’ve just heard an interview with him about how he keeps it all straight, don’t tell me. I want to enjoy the fantasy.)

The reason I think some sort of chart like this must exist is because the Tales of the City characters are so real and so beloved. In order to speak to so many people, the author has to believe in and love the characters too, right? He has to practically live in their world.

I suppose the same must hold true for the Harry Potter books, although personally I’d rather live at 28 Barbary Lane than Hogwarts. I’d bet that J.K. Rowling is more of a leather journal type than a wall chart type, though. The kind with the string that wraps around and ties it closed. I don’t know why I think that though. Maybe because she’s British and those notebooks look very British.

Ms. Rowling’s job was probably even more difficult than Mr. Maupin’s even though she wrote the books in a much shorter time span. She really did create a whole world. At least Mr. Maupin didn’t have to remember the names of things like muggles and Quidditch.

In both cases, however, they had to make sure they had their fictional facts right because they have rabid fans that would notice any mistakes instantly.

I hadn’t realized that novels are fact-checked until last April at the Books on the Nightstand retreat. One of the authors, I think it was either Matthew Dicks or Chris Bohjalian, said that his novel was fact checked down to the street names and he was called out for having one street that didn’t really exist.

I wonder if the Harry Potter and Tales of the City series are fact checked against themselves. And if they are, do the fact checkers have to read all the books right before fact checking the latest one in order to make sure it’s accurate? If not, how would they do a fictional fact check?

Someone in the book industry help me out here. I really want to know about this now. And if the job does exist, I want it!

Well, I got a little off topic there. My point is, no matter how they accomplish the feat, it takes incredible talent to create a group of characters that people not only want to read about book after book, but to write them in such a way that they become friends to the reader.

I haven’t read a Tales of the City book since 2008, when Michael Tolliver Lives came out. But within minutes of picking up Mary Ann in Autumn, I was back in the character’s lives.

It’s similar to a friend that you don’t see very often but when you do it’s like you’ve never been apart. I have a couple of friends like that and I value that aspect of our friendship.

I value the Tales of the City books in the same way. And now, after six whole months of ‘writing,’ I respect Armistead Maupin’s ability to translate that feeling on to the page even more.

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One thought on “One Thousand Words on Book Characters that are Old Friends

  1. Pingback: Blog Post #500! | One Thousand Words Project

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