In Absolutely Truly, my new middle grade mystery set in a bookshop in the fictional town of Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, a first edition of Charlotte’s Web goes missing. There’s a reason this particular book features so prominently in the story—it’s a nod to my literary hero, E. B. White.
E.B. White and I go way back. He’s one of the reasons I became a writer, thanks to Charlotte’s Web, which was one of my all-time favorites as a young reader (it still is). It tops a short list of what I consider perfect novels—a list that includes Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, among a handful of others.
The year I turned 12 and declared my intention of becoming an author, my dad slipped a copy of Elements of Style into my Christmas stocking. It was an inspired present, as the book on writing and grammar that Mr. White co-wrote with William Strunk, Jr., made me feel both validated and grown-up. I displayed it prominently on my desk, and if I read it with more enthusiasm than comprehension, at least I felt very sophisticated as I did so. Later, in college, I would discover White’s collected letters and essays, which helped inspire my early career as a journalist.
Of all the gifts that E. B. White has given me, though, the one I treasure most are his characters. I can’t even imagine a world without Charlotte and Wilbur, or without Fern Arable, and Lurvy, and Templeton the rat. Memorable characters such as these are what make for memorable stories. Sure, setting is important, research is important, and a story without a plot is a hot mess (anybody sat through Waiting for Godot recently?), but for me, memorable characters are the main course, the engine that drives the train, the beating heart of a book.
Characters like Charlotte and Wilbur don’t just spring full-blown onto the page like Athena from the head of Zeus, however. Writing is a deliberate act. It is artifice; it is craft; it is intentional. While the concept for a character may come to a writer in a flash, the construction of that character is the result of much effort and care.
So how does a writer go about creating characters that walk off the page and straight into a reader’s heart?
It comes down to something I call “borrowed fire.”
There are other tools writers employ in creating characters, of course—tools such as description, dialogue, and voice. But all of these ingredients would be nothing without borrowed fire. Without this elemental flame, characters remain as lifeless and cold as the paper on which they’re printed.
I live in the Pacific Northwest, just a few miles from the end of the Oregon Trail. While reading about the early settlers at one point, I learned just how crucial fire was to survival. The pioneers depended on it for warmth, for cooking, for light, and for cheer. If a campfire or cook stove went out in a log cabin or along the wagon train, someone would be rapidly dispatched to a neighbor’s with a lidded pan to “borrow fire”—a few embers or coals with which to rekindle their own.
In writing, we, too, need fire. We need the blaze of emotion to light up our stories and stir our readers, igniting in them a sympathetic response.
But from whom do we borrow this fire?
From ourselves. From our own lives, our own experiences. Robert Frost once said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Writers have to be willing to dig deep. I’m not talking about spilling dark secrets onto the page. I’m talking about tapping into your own unique well of emotional experience and sharing it with your reader. We all know what it’s like to be anxious about something, to be envious or fearful or alight with happiness or crazy in love. Investing our characters with these emotional truths creates the point of connection. That’s the moment at which a character walks off the page and into a reader’s heart.
E.B. White was never an eight-year-old girl named Fern. He was never a worried piglet or a literate spider or a scheming rat with a soft underbelly of kindness. But he knew about friendship, and love, and loss, and he borrowed those embers from his own life to kindle his characters, and the light and warmth they radiate have touched the hearts of readers down the years.
Borrowed fire is where the magic happens in a story. It’s by the light of this fire that memorable characters are made.