Wide Angle

Creating Characters Who Speak to Us

Rumaan Alam, author of the new novel Leave the World Behind, shares techniques for drawing readers into his fiction.

A Bangladeshi American man wearing glasses.
Rumaan Alam. David A. Land.

On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with co-host Rumaan Alam about his new novel, Leave the World Behind. Alam is also the author of Rich and Pretty and That Kind of Mother. They discussed how novelists do research, what goes into the different stages of publishing a book, and what it’s like to write from different perspectives. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

June Thomas: When you’re writing, do you think, What would this character’s favorite novel be? What would that character’s bad habit be?

Rumaan Alam: I don’t. I wish I did. It makes me think of certain kinds of actors who are so committed to losing themselves in a performance that they won’t take off the costume, or they’ll read the book that their character might have on their bedside table. I don’t, because I treat these people as both real and as little devices to enact a story. I invest them ultimately with myself or little things I’ve stolen from other people. Readers often want to ask what is autobiographical in a given book, and my answer is that everything is autobiographical, because you’re always locked inside your own sensibility. You can’t even prove that the way in which the sky looks blue to you is the way in which the sky looks blue to anyone else. It’s always mitigated by your own experience of a thing. You may have noticed that there’s a scene in which Ruth, the Black homeowner, talks about Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. She’s saying what I feel about a work of art, but that doesn’t mean that I am Ruth or she is me.

Similarly, when I think of the characters in Leave the World Behind, at least one thing about each one pops into my mind. It could be a habit they have: Clay’s a smoker; Ruth likes Swan Lake. Is that a trick that you have discovered and that you are working on the reader? When you were creating these characters, were you thinking, what’s Clay’s thing, what’s Ruth’s thing?

I don’t know if I was thinking about distilling them down to a particular tic or habit or some facts from which you could extrapolate meaning. But something that I have only realized lately is that when writing a book, most of the work of the book is being done by the reader. If you say, “Barbara went down the hall to answer the telephone,” the reader is picturing one kind of Barbara, one kind of hall, one kind of telephone. And you can affect that by saying, “Barbara went down the dimly lit hall to answer the telephone.” Or “Barbara went down the hall to answer the yellow telephone.” So you can decide what is important, but the reader is completing that picture. That’s a liberation actually. It lets you get away with less labor, less description, and it allows the reader to have a toehold in the world.

To be clear, when I say, “This is their thing,” that can seem bad, but to me, it really gave these characters souls. They are people who I know. If I think of smokers, I remember Clay. If I think of Swan Lake, I’ll think of Ruth. That’s actually an amazing trick, if that’s what it is. I certainly don’t mean any shade by it.

I speak of character as a device to enact a story, but you’re identifying something important, which is that the character has to feel like more than that. They have to feel like you can visualize them or like you can understand them in the context of the people in your own life. It’s telling that Clay is not just a smoker, but a secret smoker.

Yes, a sneaky smoker.

That’s a particular kind of person, and that’s important. As the book draws to a conclusion, the narrative says at some point that he doesn’t have any cigarettes left. That becomes meaningful in a different way. The endeavor of this book is certainly to establish a sense that these people are not fake, that you could know them, that you could have a feeling about them.

To listen to the full interview with Rumaan Alam, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.