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February 24, 2011

Tim Tharp: On Writing Realistic Characters

Posted by jordana

badd cover.jpgTim Tharp_author photo (1).JPGTim Tharp's latest novel, BADD, is out in stores now --- it's about a girl who must deal with return of her brother from war, who has changed dramatically from the boy, and brother, he was. Today he shares on the Teenreads blog an experience that has helped him write characters that are truthful and multi-dimensional.

Ceejay McDermott and her brother Bobby. Mr. White. Captain Crazy. Brianna, Gillis, Tillman, and Dani. These are a few of the people who populate my latest novel BADD, the story of a teenage girl learning to deal with a favorite brother who has returned from the Iraq War a different person. While writing the book I got to know all of them very well. I had to because, for me, an important part of writing is exploring who people are and why they do what they do. And finding their humanity.

Of course, I couldn’t do this with fictional characters if I didn’t first look for the same things in the real people around me. I learned this from my father, a newspaper columnist and born storyteller. As a child, I listened, spellbound, to his stories about the people from the small Oklahoma town where he was born, the dreamers he ran into as he traveled the country, and the soldiers he went to war with. But it wasn’t just the stories that I learned from. He also showed me how to understand people more deeply when they were right there in front of me.

As a journalist, my father often had free tickets to all sorts of events around Oklahoma City. From a boy’s point of view that is an excellent trait for a father to have, and I was excited when he used some of those free tickets to take my brother and me to the state fair. We rode the roller coasters, the Ferris wheel, the tilt-a-whirl, and the haunted house ride. We saw monkeys drive go-carts and a woman who changed into—well, a woman in a gorilla suit. But the part I remember most is when Dad took us to see the World’s Smallest Man.

Despite the colorful caricatures that decorated the outside of the exhibit, the inside was somewhat shabby. The World’s Smallest Man sat on a platform so that he was actually higher than I was. The advertisement declared that he was less than two feet tall. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that measurement, but I certainly believed it at the time. We were not there to simply gawk at him, though. No, this was professional business. My dad wanted to interview him for a column. At least that’s what he said as we went in.

But there was more to it than that. The World’s Smallest Man was named Pete, and as Pete answered my father’s questions, I learned that he had an average-size wife and kids and drove a car and had a normal home in some normal place like Texas. As Pete talked he often looked me in the eye, not like I was a just a kid but like I was a person, the way some men will do when they’ve known hardship. The carnival atmosphere faded away, then, and it was just the three of us, having a normal conversation.

This is a memory that has always stayed with me and informs the way I look at the characters I write about. Because even though I was only nine or ten years old, I understood, at that moment, why we were really there. My father wanted my brother and me to learn something. We weren’t there to just see the World’s Smallest Man. We were there to see that the World’s Smallest Man was, above anything else, a man.

--- Tim Tharp

Other stops on Tim Tharp's Blog Tour:

February 25thBloggers Heart Books 
February 26thYA Fresh