February 9, 2014
How To Cook A Character
Characters form the basis for all good writing. It doesn’t matter how good your storytelling is, or how intricate and complex the plot, if you don’t have great characters your novel won’t shine. I have come to realize that character development is very similar to cooking, especially cooking red sauce.
In an Italian household there is nothing more precious than the recipe for the red sauce/gravy. It forms the basis for a large percentage of meals and is usually the only thing that most people in the family agree upon.
“Fahgettaboutit! Mamma’s sauce is the best. Bar none.”
Nothing will start an argument quicker than comparing anyone else’s sauce to the family recipe. Now that you know that—if you already didn’t—it will come as no surprise to know that there is a process for making the sauce that is strictly adhered to. In our family that process has been followed without variation for generations. My two older brothers and I never showed much interest in cooking, although in defense of myself, I was married at 17, and as a teenager there is only one thing you’re interested in—which is why I got married. My sister and two younger brothers were young when my father died, so the only one he taught his secrets to was my wife, and she followed the recipe to the smallest detail.
My oldest son is a fantastic cook, but he can’t get his lasagna to come out the exact same way my wife’s does. He swears she doesn’t give him the complete recipe and that she secretly puts other things in the sauce while he’s not looking. I wanted to tell you what she does to the sauce, but she is standing behind me with a knife to my throat.
Side note: There is a saying in the animal kingdom that nothing is more dangerous than a wild pig protecting its babies. We have wild pigs, so I know what I’m talking about here, and nothing is more dangerous than an Italian woman protecting her sauce recipe.
The recipe for red sauce—and the process it goes through—is more stringent than the process pharmaceutical companies use to make drugs. If you’re familiar with the formulation of drugs, you know that the process is more magic than science. Just because something works when you make it in a 2-liter batch doesn’t mean it will work when you make it in a 200-liter batch. Even though you scaled up the ingredients perfectly. The same goes for red sauce.
Making a meal for a family of four is one thing; cooking up 15 pounds of meatballs and huge pots of sauce for 25 or 30 is something else entirely. It takes a combination of skills that have been honed to perfection, and the two most important are—chef and taster. In our home, my wife is the chef. I am the taster.
I am not, and have never been, a chef. I can barely cook toast. But…I am a great taster. I can sample a spoonful of sauce and tell you what’s needed. More cheese. More garlic. A pinch of sugar. A few more onions. A dash of xxxx.
My son Jimmy, has taken over the reins of much of the family get togethers, but there is one he hasn’t mastered yet—Mikki’s lasagna. It is, by all accounts, the best lasagna I have ever tasted. I have had guests say it. I have had friends, and even non friends. My brother’s ex-wife insisted on being able to come for lasagna at Christmas and Easter. (It might have been part of the divorce settlement.) Her lasagna is so good…I am at a loss to describe it.
Characters and Red Sauce
Great characters are like a great red sauce. You can’t just toss ingredients together and expect the sauce to taste good. By the same token, you can’t toss a bunch of characters into a book and expect them to have chemistry, or to interact in a believable manner. I experienced this firsthand with one of my books—A Bullet For Carlos. It’s about a Brooklyn detective who goes to Texas. I wrote that book three times before I got it right. I couldn’t get the main character, Connie Gianelli, to interact right with the characters in Texas. On the third try I decided to make her personality a combination of two people I knew, and, I switched her from third person POV to first person POV. That combination worked, and I finally had a character I loved.
A great red sauce is a mixture of just the right ingredients, in the proper amounts, and cooked to perfection. If my wife were to miss one ingredient, or add two tablespoons of X instead of one—we’d know. Your characters have to be just as precise. If not, your readers will notice.