Last time my husband and I traveled to see my mom back home, we took her for a little tour of the area. As we drove the gravel roads, we reminisced about who had lived where in the past, what had happened to this house or that row of trees. I only lived there for the first eighteen years of my life, but those first years hold so many indelible memories.
Thinking back, it wasn’t the actual places that held my attention as much as the people associated with them. The family that lived in that house had a daughter who ended up not far from where I live now. The couple from the farm next to ours are both gone and the house and yard have fallen into disrepair. Some farmyards have completely disappeared, covered by fields of canola or oats or wheat. But the stories live on even though the people do not.
Stories of people, whether from my memory or someone else’s, were what brought me to writing in the first place. I wrote about my family long past, about my husband’s great-grandparents in Crimea, about my maternal grandfather in the Red Cross in Turkey during World War One. I researched wars and droughts and famines, trials and emigration and settling into a new country. Yes, the places were fascinating, but it was the people and their stories that kept me searching and brought it all together.
We need strong settings and intricate plots, but it’s our characters that make the stories memorable. I don’t know about you, but I will always have a special place in my heart for the characters from my first book (which turned into a trilogy). They are as real as my ancestors in the fragile photographs I study from time to time, and some of the real ones were “characters!” In fact, I keep a sheet of copied photos, real and stock, taped to my desk where I can see them as I write. From their vantage point, they speak to me across years and beyond reality.
There are many elements essential to a successful story, but characters are the memory-creators of fiction.