Becoming Leo: Creating Fictional Characters

My Sweetboy pauses outside the café’s door and points to a young child toddling alongside her parent. Sweetboy stops the girl’s mother.

What’s her name?  This is June. And what’s your name?

Leo. Hi Leo. It’s nice to meet you.

Sweetboy, whose name is not Leo, grins with satisfaction. I nudge him to respond with a reciprocal “nice to meet you, too” – a response that is not reflexive for him yet. Then we step into the cool, sweet-smelling air of the gelato café where he will ask me to read aloud all the flavors. He’ll ponder a bit before choosing. I understand. Who wants buyer’s remorse over their gelato?

As he silently compares the appeal of mint to caramel, I ponder this “Leo” phenomenon. My son’s name is not Leo. Not even close. But that hasn’t stopped Sweetboy from lately insisting on being called Leo. (I continue to call him by his given name or Sweetboy. I figure the seven-inch scar across my abdomen gives me the right.)

When I mention my son’s name change to other moms, they nod and chuckle and share their own child’s phase of wanting to change their name.

Yet I worry. What if his insistence on being called a different name stems from a desire to be someone other than who he is? What if, as Sweetboy becomes more aware of his autistic differences, he grows to dislike himself? I wish he could see himself as I see him. Beautiful. Perfect. Wonderfully made.

Maybe he wants to know what it would be like to be someone else. Perhaps it is his way of trying to understand the minds of others. He finds it very difficult to speculate on the motives or thoughts of characters in books. I’m sure he also finds it challenging to understand the thoughts and actions of his peers. Maybe becoming Leo gives him a chance to pretend inside another mind. Or maybe he is experimenting with discovering his own identity. There’s also an excellent chance that Sweetboy is just having fun, and that I worry too much.

When I was in second grade, just a little younger than Sweetboy is now, I started writing “Sara” on my papers, dropping the “h”. Same name, just a different spelling. I wanted a fresh way of being me. Before the day was over, my teacher told me to stop. She said that you can’t change your name. My instant disappointment held a tinge of embarrassment as well for being caught out in my desire to experience life from a different perspective, to see what it was like to be “Sara without an h”.

Half a lifetime later, and I’m writing fiction. When I write, I can temporarily inhabit a different person. I can explore the world through multiple different perspectives. A fresh way of being me. Or at least a sliver of me manifest in a character. I can explore the lives, places, and paths I haven’t known. Depending on how far removed a character is from my own experience, creating a character can require a lot of research. (Fortunately, I love doing research.)

To embody a character on the page goes much farther than choosing yellow curly hair with a red scarf or long red hair with blue eyes. There is an abundance of advice online for any facet of writing you’re focusing on, including character development. Check out this post from one of my favorite writing blogs – Writers In The Storm.

In a future post, I’ll share a little about a character I’m creating with Sweetboy. We’re writing a story about a boy called Lucky Max.

For now, I’ll leave you with this quote from Hemingway:

hemingway character quote

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