The strongest character I think I’ve ever written is Ruby from Imaginary Girls. I say that because she consumed me and shifted the light of the story to shine, more and more, on her. I first invented her casually, for a small short story I was writing on the side, and she went on to leap out of that story and demand a bigger container. Eventually that became the novel known as Imaginary Girls. I’m sure that, if it wasn’t for Ruby, that novel would never have been written. There would have been no point.
Here’s a description of Ruby from the first chapter of Imaginary Girls, as seen through her little sister’s eyes:
I could see Ruby lit up by a flashlight. This was the summer she’d turned nineteen. She was beautiful, everyone said so, but that wasn’t all she was. Her hair was deep brown and long down the length of her back. She had a smattering of freckles, just enough to be worth counting, across her nose. She wore boots every day, even with sundresses; and she never left the house without sunglasses, the kind with the giant, tinted lenses that celebrities wear while lounging on some distant tropical beach. When Ruby slipped the glasses up on her forehead to keep the hair from her eyes, when she let you see her whole face, she got the sort of reactions a girl from a magazine might get if she flashed what was under her shirt. The stopped traffic, the stares. Ruby just had this light about her that can’t be explained in words—you had to see her.
Whenever I happen to read that part aloud at book events and readings, I can almost sense her standing there. Ruby. Ruby come to life and amused at how I’m describing her. Because, as I go on to say in that passage, she’s so much more than her looks. Her power is all-consuming—at least, it has been for me. She doesn’t want me to forget that.
What you should know is that the above description—a not-so-different version of that very paragraph—existed long before Imaginary Girls was a glimmer of a novel in my eye. That paragraph is from the short story I wrote years ago and it’s one of the few pieces, possibly the only piece, that remains almost entirely intact from that story.
Of course Ruby came to me first. Ruby came before everyone, really, even Chloe, who narrates the whole book. Or, more, the existence of Ruby depended on the existence of the person who loved her most and saw her the way no one else saw her. Ruby may have come out in such detail before all others, but her eyes—Chloe—came a heartbeat later to prop her up.
A strong character can lure a whole cast of characters to gather around her. A strong character can lead the story, even break open that story and turn it on its head. A strong character is the one whose voice you hear in your ears—writers, even when you’re not writing; readers, long after the book’s been devoured and put away. A strong character can create and alter the plot, because isn’t plot often a series of choices made by the characters?
So what does it mean to write a strong character?
I guess it means allowing yourself to be taken over, limb from limb. And to be open to the chase. The strongest character, for me, always begins as a mystery. The more mysterious she is, the better. All my time and effort spent writing—all the very many pages that come—it’s all simply because I want to figure her out.
Nova Ren Suma is the author of Imaginary Girls (Dutton, 2011) and Dani Noir (Aladdin, 2009), which was recently reissued as Fade Out (Simon Pulse, 2012). Her new YA novel, 17 & Gone, will come out March 2013 from Dutton. She lives in New York City and can be found on her author website and her blog distraction99.com.