How do you know if your characters are there to stay, like that mustard stain on your shirt or your buddy (who reminds you of mustard stains) who needed “a few hours” to crash? How do you know if it’s time to sing that new(ish) haunting Rihanna song to your characters: I want you to stayyyyyyyy ayy ayy ayy ayy . . . I want you to stay?
I believe that if your characters stick with you to the extent that you believe they’re real, that you hear their voices (in a non-creepy way) when you’re running or walking or shopping or driving (very carefully), that you’d love one of your family members to meet one of your book friends (in a non-creepy but really cool way), that when your friends say something witty about donuts all you want to say is “THANK YOU” and all you want to do (after French cheek-kissing them on the cheeks 2-6 times) is run home to add a few paragraphs about a character named Donuts to p. 142, that when you hear a kid speak goofily (now a word) yet formally and without contractions you say to yourself, Hey, that is something Manny would say . . . that’s when you know you have a lasting character.
If you’re able to scribble the dialogue for his/her meeting with Zach Galifianakis, President Obama, Steve Urkel, and Stefan Urquelle; if you know what your character would say to your student, your mother-in-law, your dog, your boss, that lady at the gym who always needs a fan, that guy at the grocery store who never smiles, that waiter with the handlebar mustache . . . that’s when you know you have a lasting character.
In fact, an exercise I love to do with my students and one I practice when I’m stuck, is to write 10 lines or so of a conversation between one of my characters and someone I know: that snooty guy from sales, that teacher who has to be right, your sibling who is “just checking in.” If you can do it — and want to keep going — you’re on the right track.
In the words of Dr. Seuss (and my mother serving boiled cabbage*), “Try it, you may like it” or something like that.
*If you enjoy boiled cabbage, there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. In fact, I envy you. Now stop thinking about cabbage and try that exercise.