Genesis of If a Butterfly – Character Decisions

Okay, by this time I had six main characters (a lot to juggle, I know), but with NaNoWriMo just weeks away at this point, my biggest worry was finding a way for these characters to inhabit a location (possibly on the butterfly’s route) and have a role to play in the story. At first, I thought I would start with the beginning and end of the route (someone could be in Canada to witness the butterflies lift off in early September, and someone else could be at the end of the journey in Mexico). I chose to have a school teacher in Ontario, Canada, with a vital interest in butterflies, so I made her a science teacher, and named her Sally Benson. The person most logically who would be in Mexico would be the butterfly researcher, I named him Michael Shaw (my first name and my mother’s maiden name), and decided he would work at Rice University in Houston. Two down.

In thinking about our summer vacations along Interstate 81, I remembered a lovely small town in Virginia named Abingdon, and thought I could put one of the characters there. It turns out that Abingdon is about 900 miles away from Presqu’ile Provincial Park, where I was going to have the butterflies lift off in the novel, if the butterflies flew over Lake Ontario (which they do). It also turns out that Abingdon is just over 1,000 miles from Houston, making it a nice mid-point for the characters. So I decided to put a character in Abingdon. I made him the deejay, and I decided to call him Rock Jackson (real first name not to be revealed until a crucial point in the book). That made three.

A thought occurred to me about this time. All the characters didn’t need to be static, some could be on the move. I actually already had a character on the move anyway. The astronaut (unnamed so far) would be circling the Earth every ninety minutes. I originally envisioned him as a sort of Greek chorus, looking down from the International Space Station, commenting on everything happening below. I thought another on-the-move character could be on vacation, traveling along I-81, so I decided to let the actress be the vacationer.

I also added another character at this point, because (since the characters were all separated from each other), a lot of the novel might be in their heads, but a couple conversing and interacting, trapped in a car together on a long driving trip, would be more interesting than one person driving alone. I gave the actress a husband, bringing my total character count up to seven. I made him a middle school teacher, which gave me two teacher characters at this point (one in Canada and one from Houston). I called the married couple Dick and Jane Jarvis. I used Dick and Jane as placeholder names, thinking I would change them eventually, but they grew on me (and were among the few characters who didn’t undergo either a name or gender change before the novel was done). Six characters and locations were settled. I only had one more to place geographically, the quilter.

I had put two characters at the beginning and end points in the story (Canada and Mexico), one at the mid-point (Abingdon), had a fourth circling the Earth a couple hundred miles above us, and had a married couple traveling along the route. Where could I put the quilter? I thought briefly about making her an Amish quilter, and putting her in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area. It was an area Minay and I visited nearly every summer, partly so she could browse the quilt shops there and buy fabric for her own quilts. I thought the idea was good, but not as good as it could be. The more I thought about her, the more I saw a woman who wasn’t from that area originally, but went there because she loved quilting so much, and was trying to get away from her troubles back home. Stella Lambert, my seventh character, had arrived. She was going to be a quilter who left Dallas because of the memories of her dead husband, and had run away to Amish country, the land of the “real” quilters, never imagining she wouldn’t be accepted into the tight-knit (no pun intended) community.

My cast of characters was complete, or so I thought.

Before November started, a brush fire flare-up gave me the idea for one of the first chapters I wrote; once NaNoWriMo was underway, something happened during jury duty that created another character; and mid-way through the month, a trip to the Grand Canyon added a minor character who expanded considerably over the next several years. I’ll write about all of that in the next post, The Plot Thickens (A Little).

Do you get your plot settled before you try to populate your story (hard to do), or do your characters usually come first? Do plot and character breed at the same time for you? Opinions? Variations?


About michaelsirois

Just a retired educator taking a stab at the Great American Novel.
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