News and Interviews

"Characters are Complicated, Just Like People" Bruce McDougall on How to Build Authentic Characters


photo credit Ian Crysler

Bruce McDougall's writing career has spanned more than three decades and generated more than twenty books of nonfiction, covering biographies, sports, and more. But in 2014, he turned his talents to fiction, with the publication of his first story collection, Every Minute is a Suicide. It was a long wait after having written fiction as an undergrad at Harvard, but well worth it. 

His new short fiction collection, Urban Disturbances (Porcupine's Quill), shows he's got plenty more stories to tell. McDougall's tight, stripped-down sentences deftly capture the longing and disillusionment that connects the characters in each piece. With characters as varied as Jack (of the beanstalk), an apathetic lawyer, and a crumbling philanthropist, Urban Disturbances shows what we all have in common: that relationships are complex and often difficult, that we long for connection even in the darkest moments, and that life hardly ever works out quite like we expect. 

We're excited to welcome Bruce to Open Book today to discuss the vivid, tough, fascinating characters he's created in these pages as part of our In Character series. He tells us why physical description is far from the most important part of building character, about the classic Elmore Leonard writing dictum he aims to follow, and about the complex personal story he's working on next. 

Open Book:

Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?

Bruce McDougall:

Characters in my stories tend to reveal themselves in the same way as friends in a relationship. You have expectations based on your initial feeling about the person, and you hope that the person will live up to those expectations. But you can’t dictate the person’s behaviour. Characters are complicated, just like people, and you have to observe all the nuances that distinguish one from another. If you force a person to behave in a way that conforms to the design of your story, you’ve stopped listening to the character. The character becomes a device to further your plot, just as a friendship can become a means of furthering the ambitions of a selfish person. A generous writer, like a generous friend, allows characters to reveal themselves even if he has to revise or abandon his preconceptions about the story. Generosity comes at a cost.


How clearly do you picture or see your characters' physical appearances while writing, and how relevant are their appearances to your writing process?


I see my characters clearly, in the same way we see people in a well-lit room. I see that they’re young, old, tall, short, fat, skinny, bald, bearded, bespectacled, swarthy, pasty-faced, well dressed, slovenly... But in a good story, as in life, appearances alone don’t distinguish one person from another in a way that makes a difference to our lives. Those distinctions depend on subtle nuances of character, and I wish I could demonstrate them more clearly and economically than I do. In A Burnt Out Case, by Graham Greene, which I’m reading at the moment, there’s a passage in which six priests, about whom we know almost nothing, are sitting at a dinner table. Through dialogue and brief narrative intervention, each character emerges as venal, practical, naïve, resigned, timid, or off with the fairies. Greene takes fewer than two pages to do this, and he describes the physical characteristics of only one of them.


How well do you "know" your characters? Is it relevant to you to know a lot of information about them that doesn't appear on the page?


I try to learn as much as I can about my characters. That learning often comes from seeing them in action with other people, going through experiences that influence their subsequent behaviour and sometimes making choices that they regret later. At the time, all of this seems to contribute to the story, and I assume that a reader will find these episodes as interesting and revealing as I do. If I’m smart, I realize sooner or later that most of this information provides a dimension to the characters that has nothing to do with the immediate story that I’m trying to tell, even if it adds depth and humanity to the characters, and I cut it. As a result, some of the best things I’ve ever written now lie at the bottom of the virtual trash can. At least, that’s what I think at the time. As time passes, I can’t remember what I’ve cut. As Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”


Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?


Gully Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Cary. Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford. Police Chief Fred Clumly in The Sunlight Dialogues, by John Gardner. Emma Bovary in Madam Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman, by Walker Percy. Agnes Day in Saving Agnes, by Rachel Cusk. Harry Lime in The Third Man, by Graham Greene...


How do you feel about the characters from your earliest work now?


Like many writers, I drew my earliest stories from my own life and based my characters on people I knew, including myself. But the stories would not have worked if they’d remained strictly autobiographical. My life’s not that interesting. I had to emphasize, exaggerate, distort, and embellish them with imaginary details. Eventually I found the courage or the motivation to entertain characters whom I’d never encountered before. One of these characters was a middle-aged man named Hud Stickley, the chief of police in a small town called Belston, who sets out to identify the murderer of a young girl in the town while trying to dissuade the citizens from blaming the murder on a solitary misfit named Jimmy De Santis. When Jimmy was a wiry teenager, Hud had arrested him on several occasions for petty crimes, but he feels certain that Jimmy is incapable of murder. What he doesn’t know is that Jimmy is a cross-dresser and was strolling one night through the park in the centre of town wearing a wig, high heels, and a low-cut dress when he came upon the murderer disposing of the girl’s remains under the water tower. I’m very fond of these characters and all the others in this story, and I wish I could share them with other readers. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a publisher for it.


What are you working on now?


I started to write a story about my father, who lived in Toronto for almost forty years before he met and married my mother. When I was seven, my mother took my sister and me away from him and I never saw him again. A year later he drowned in Lake Ontario, near the mouth of the Humber River. I realized as I’ve moved further into the story that I know almost nothing about him or the life that he led before he and my mother met. He’s an imaginary character, and I’ll have to let him reveal himself in a way that seems true, even if it’s not.


Bruce McDougall has been a freelance writer for more than 30 years. A graduate of Harvard College, he served as an editor of The Harvard Lampoon and attended the University of Toronto Law School before becoming a full-time writer. He has written or co-written more than twenty non-fiction books, including The Last Hockey Game (Goose Lane, 2014) and biographies of Canadian poet Charles Mair; Canada’s first detective, John Wilson Murray; and business giant Ted Rogers. He has also published a collection of short stories, Every Minute Is a Suicide (Porcupine’s Quill, 2014). His essays have appeared in The Antigonish Review and his fiction in GeistsubTerrain, and Scrivener. He lives in Toronto.

Buy the Book

Urban Disturbances

Bruce McDougall’s skilful short stories sketch a warts-and-all portrait of humanity, illuminating the mysterious forces that drive people to behave in unique—and uniquely human—ways.

In Urban Disturbances ordinary characters reveal through their stories the infinite possibilities of our common humanity.

A dispassionate lawyer experiences mixed feelings about talking a man out of jumping off a bridge. A respected philanthropist begins to buckle under the weight of a shocking secret. A determined woman crafts a meticulous plan to bag a rich husband. Jack (of beanstalk fame) discovers the maiden in the tower—and happily ever after—aren’t always all that they’re cracked up to be. These characters and others are at once painfully ordinary and deliciously absurd, often relatable and occasionally irredeemable. They navigate complicated relationships and contend with their own self-destructive behaviours, all the while clinging to essential, very human, desires: to be noticed, to be wanted, to be loved, and occasionally, when the situation calls for it, to get what they deserve.