Skip to main content

How Writing Lifelike Characters Can Fill Voids of Meaning

Author Karan Mahajan explored how he writes characters that navigate worlds plagued with complex, unresolvable issues at the English Reading Series presentation held on January 21, 2022.

“A good bombing begins everywhere at once,” Indian-American author Karan Mahajan said solemnly as he read aloud from the beginning of his award-winning novel, The Association of Small Bombs. The passage he read depicted the harrowing scene of a bomb destroying a marketplace in India, exploring in keen detail the brief but life-changing moment of violence. The rest of the book explores how the people affected by the bombing dealt with this single act of violence.

Author Karan Mahajan

Mahajan then moved on to read from Colony, an upcoming novel to be published in 2023. Colony dives into the thoughts of Mira, an Indian woman struggling with whether or not to leave her unfaithful husband after learning of his English mistress.

In the question-and-answer session that followed his reading, Mahajan explained that his books often have to do with “voids of meaning”—trials such as losing a loved one that pose no clear resolution or course of action—and how his characters react to them. For the characters, this is never a simple or straightforward process. “My characters always seem to be contradicting themselves. They are in a constant state of thinking about things around them,” he said.

Mahajan’s stories have helped him deal with his own voids of meaning. For example, one of the primary impetuses for The Association of Small Bombs was the violence he saw in the world around him. “I came to the United States the week after 9/11, and I was full of this anger and hurt.” Around the same time, he learned of other terrorist attacks occurring in India, and he had trouble making sense of it all. Writing The Association of Small Bombs helped him heal from the trauma of seeing such senseless violence. “I started writing that opening scene that I just read, and it all just poured out.” He ended up with an award-winning novel.

Mahajan also spoke about how his own identity as an Indian-American author shaped him and his writing, particularly his complex characters. A native of New Delhi, Mahajan moved to the United States at age 17. This adjustment posed another challenge Mahajan had to make sense of—what did it mean to have a dual identity, to be both American and Indian? Again, he decided to explore the struggle through his writing, asking himself, “How do I use my own feelings of dislocation to enter the perspective of my characters?” Mahajan concluded that this reflection ultimately made him a better writer: “Being here in America has helped me enter the perspective of an outsider to India.”

Just as Mahajan draws on his own experiences to write his lifelike characters, his ability to see his characters beyond the bounds of the story is key to their complexity. “I see my characters on a grander scale at first, and I see the smaller scenes after,” he said. “I am interested in how characters change in the space of 10 years. How does that happen?”

As Mahajan finished the question-and-answer session, attendees flooded the Zoom chat with questions. Perhaps the most comprehensive comment he offered on his approach to writing was, “I pour myself equally into all my characters.” Sage advice for any novelist trying to infuse their pages with life.