Creating a Character Out of Thin Air by Sally Koslow
When you see a newborn baby in your family, the impulse is to declare that the child has the Smith chin, granny’s jug ears, her mother’s pug nose and, unfortunately, Uncle Barney’s gigantic head. Characters created by an author are a similar scramble, though often the inspiration is a few degrees more separated or even subconscious.
When I wrote my first novel, Little Pink Slips, which was animated by my experiences in the magazine industry, I gave Magnolia Gold, the main character, a DNA transplant of my own enthusiasm for being an editor. I also made her single and younger than I am, because as an author I am an all-powerful God. Many of the minor characters were inspired by people I knew; colleagues could read the tea leaves.
In The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, my mother-in-law prompted Molly’s Geisha-like mother, who spends her evenings at home in luscious robes, not sweat pants. In my head she looks like Blythe Danner. With Friends like These is the story of four women whose tight friendships self-destruct. I put trace elements of myself and women I know into Jules, Talia, Chloe and Quincy, but Arthur Weiner, one of the women’s boyfriends, was a direct clone of a friend’s stingy, manipulative Romeo who she later, thankfully, dumped.
With The Widow Waltz, my new novel, my muses were less direct. Georgia Waltz, the primary protagonist, looks—in my mind’s eye—like Julie Christie at age 50. Which is to say, beautiful, without the benefit of plastic surgery. Her attitude and struggles were modeled after many women I know who are happily married as well as financially fortunate. I tried to imagine how such a woman might respond to a husband’s betrayal, because an author advances the plot of a novel by creating obstacles her characters need to overcome. That one is huge.
Nicola Silver-Waltz, Georgia’s older daughter, is a woman in her 20s whose parents have indulged her laissez faire inclination to flit from country to country without digging into a job or graduate school. To create Nicola, I had to look no further than Slouching Toward Adulthood, my own non-fiction book about the consequences of helicopter parenting. Louisa, Georgia’s younger daughter, a college student, reminds me of many kids I’ve met in Manhattan over the years, glib on the outside, shaky inside.
Camille Waltz, Georgia’s mother, has Alzheimer’s disease, as did my own mother, so writing that character would have been easy were it not painful. For levity’s sake, and my own mental health, I gave Camelle a fixation with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Stephan Waltz, Georgia’s imperious older brother, is an Oscar Wilde devote, so Oscar was my inspiration there. Stephan is a jeweler, as was my father-in-law. No mystery there.
Now if only I could ask Gillian Flynn who her inspiration was for Amy Dunne in Gone Girl.
Sally Koslow’s fourth novel, The Widow Waltz, was just released from Viking. Her previous novels are The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, which Target chose as a Book Club Pick; With Friends Like These, picked by Target for its Emerging Writers category and Little Pink Slips, inspired by her tenure as editor-in-chief of McCall’s Magazine. She is also the author a recent non-fiction book, Slouching Toward Adulthood: How to Let Go So Your Kids Can Grow Up. Sally teaches creative writing in the New York City, including at the Writing Institute of Sarah Lawrence College. Her essays appear in major magazines such as More, Real Simple and O.
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