Tag Archives: character

A Great Book

girl“A great book, a book that adds to self-reflection and understanding, is different from an amusement: an amusement is meant to distract us from ourselves, where a great book is meant to open the honeyed cells of the inner life and freely nourish new thoughts.”
−Jack Gantos, from the 2015 Zena Sutherland Lecture

What is the difference between a story that opens “the honeyed cells of the inner life”—how I love that phrase!—and “freely nourish[es] new thoughts,” and one that is simply “an amusement”?

Part of the distinction lies in a certain gravitas of topic. The story is based in important ideas, on important struggles. But can a serious topic be enough? Every murder mystery is based on a life-and-death struggle. What could be more important than that? But taking on that struggle doesn’t give most murder mysteries the opening, nourishing quality Gantos is talking about.

What more do we need?

First and foremost, I believe characters make the difference. The characters who inhabit us, open and nourish us, are those who resist neat definition. They are characters about whom their creator has managed to keep an open mind . . . all the way to the end of the story.

At the farthest distance from great books we have melodrama, stories peopled with mustache-twirling villains and fair maidens, all purity and helplessness. (Pure maidens are always helpless, aren’t they?) And while it’s great fun to sit in an audience and cry out “Boo!” and “Aw!” to such stereotypes, discovery is no part of the experience.

All stories in which characters fit neat categories, in which they can be clearly labeled as hero or villain, good guy or bad, lean toward melodrama.

On the side of the great book are characters such as Katherine Paterson’s Gilly Hopkins. Gilly is distinct. If she walked out of her book you would recognize her the moment you saw her. And yet she is also a mess of contradictions, contradictions that never fully resolve, even at the end of her story. Readers ache for Gilly as they watch her sabotage herself. And when Gilly has destroyed her chance to return to the foster home where she truly belongs, we care deeply about her loss. We also believe in her ability to survive in the new reality she has created for herself. We put the book down more in touch with our own contradictions, our own tendency to self-destruct, our own barely acknowledged strengths.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge is one of the least attractive characters I have ever encountered at the heart of a novel . . . or in this case, at the heart of a collection of linked short stories. She is abrasive, always right, cruel to her passive and constantly attentive husband. And yet she can be compassionate, sometimes even wise, and finally, deeply vulnerable. I heard someone say “Olive Kitteridge is the only story I’ve ever read where the character doesn’t change but the reader does.” I don’t quite agree that Olive Kitteridge doesn’t change. I think she does. Or perhaps it could be argued that rather than actually changing, layers get peeled away so that we know her more intimately by the end. But I think it is wholly accurate that the committed reader may well change in encountering Olive. Staying in the company of this fascinating, difficult, hurting woman both challenges and enlarges us.

How can I create such complex, interesting, involving characters in my own stories? First, I suspect, by withholding my own judgment. If I start out with a single characteristic that will serve my story, I’m not going to open “the honeyed cells” of anyone’s inner life. I need to build contradictions into my characters that will challenge my story, not simply move it forward.

Beyond that, I need to love my own characters, whatever their flaws might be. I have a strong prejudice against stories and plays in which the author seems to be doing what I call literary slumming, choosing characters he cares little about and setting them up to duke it out.

A great book. It’s what we’re all striving for every time we sit down to write. Characters who inhabit us and will, in turn, inhabit our readers. And no one achieves such a goal easily. But loving our characters, whoever they may be, and then allowing them to grow into themselves . . . well, that’s a pretty good start.

Creating Characters

11_5I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to what it takes to create characters. How do we writers manufacture the illusion of living human beings through words on the page? And I use that word, illusion, advisedly. It’s vital to remember that what we are doing when we write fiction is creating illusion, all of it, from the stories we make up—even if bits are borrowed from life—to the people who populate them. It’s not life; it’s an imitation of life.

I’m caught in this internal monologue right now because I find myself questioning the characters in Blue-Eyed Wolf, the young adult novel I’m tiptoeing so cautiously back inside. There are two key characters who are young men, 18 years old. And while I have reared a son and have a gaggle of grandsons, the 18-year-old male is not my forte. I can admire their physical prowess. I can sympathize with their inevitable confusions. I can see how utterly beautiful they are. But how do I make one—not to mention three—come alive on the page and be both believable and distinct from one another? Of course, on one level I tell myself I already know. I’ve been doing it for many years.

Haven’t I?

A review I read recently commented that this particular story had strong characters, and I found myself asking What does that mean? I examined the book in question and decided that what the reviewer was referring to as “strong” were characters defined by a single trait. Examples we all know would be Eeyore by his depressive view of the world. Charlotte the spider by her maternal wisdom. Pippi Longstocking by her irrepressible independence. All of them unquestionably strong characters . . . or at least they all have a single, strong characteristic.

But then I asked myself, How many real people do I know who could be hung on a single peg that way? And the answer came back swiftly. Not a single one.

Now, I’ve already acknowledged that when we create characters we are dealing with illusion, not life. So perhaps there is nothing wrong with the single-peg technique. It works, after all. But I find that when I try to do it with my characters something rings false for me. I want my characters—even the side ones—to hang from more than one peg!

And yet more than one peg gives us a less identifiable, believable, perhaps less strong creation. If your character is Eeyore you know that, however kind his friends might be, he will find a way to feel bad about himself and the world. He is absolutely reliable at every turn of the page. If you present too many sides to your characters they may be more “real,” but they won’t be seen as “strong.”

I have come to realize in this exploration that I am not good at creating characters with a clear single identity. What I can do is climb inside and give the reader a glimpse into a complex, interesting, human mental process. I often receive letters from young readers that say something like, “When I read On My Honor I always knew what Joel was thinking and feeling.” And that’s what I do well. I inhabit my perceiving character and invite my readers in.

The characters I don’t inhabit? They can still reveal their inner worlds by what they say and do, of course, but I’m not sure I’ve ever created one that lives on in my readers’ minds. They would certainly never be called strong.

The single peg works. I know it works. After all, I’ve just cited characters from beloved classics, stories that will live far longer than anything I have ever written.

And, of course, I understand the technique of starting off with a single characteristic, even a stereotype, and then giving the illusion of complexity by introducing a contradiction. The soft-hearted bully. The courageous coward. The passionate prude.

But for this story I want more . . . perhaps I want more than I can deliver.

Today, when I was walking the dogs, I came up with an idea for a new easy reader. Why not, I suggested kindly to myself, return to something you know you can do?

Why not?

But Do You Love Her?

hateI’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to make a main character likable. If readers don’t care what happens to the person who carries the story, there is little reason to keep reading. And yet a main character owns her spot in the narrative because she has a problem, not because she is appealing. In fact, there will inevitably be something negative in her struggle. That’s the nature of problems. How do you make a character, consumed by such negatives, sympathetic?

When I examine this question against whatever story I’m immersed in at the moment, I always come back to thinking about a novel manuscript in a workshop I led long ago. The story was about a thirteen-year-old girl whose parents announced that she must take care of her two much-younger brothers through her summer vacation. The main character was authentically thirteen. That means, in the face of this very real affront to her plans, she was self-involved, whiney, furious. She was totally believable as a character, and the story moved forward in good order, but the response in the workshop was consistent. Folks had few complaints about the story itself, but everyone, to a person, hated the main character.

I listened to this discussion without a lot of comment, trying to sort it all myself. As I’ve already said, the girl was recognizably thirteen. Her problem was one most girls her age would find difficult. Why couldn’t these women—as far as I can recall this ongoing workshop was entirely composed of women at the time—care about her? Was it because most of us were mothers ourselves and our empathy lay with the parents’ need rather than with the girl’s self-centered fury over protecting her summer? Would young readers have had the same response?

I never answered those questions with any certainty, but I learned something entirely different the evening this writer returned to the group and, though she had been deep into her novel, announced at the beginning of her reading, “Chapter 1.”

She had gone back to the beginning, and she had made one change. Now the girl who didn’t want to take care of her little brothers had something going on besides simply wanting her summer freedom in a self-obsessed, thirteen-year-old way. She was an avid photographer. She had been planning to enter a photography contest that summer. The winner would receive a prize that would advance her opportunities as a photographer. And, of course, taking care of her brothers would make it almost impossible to do the work the girl needed to do for the contest.

The story was off and running, and I never heard a word about anyone hating the main character again.

So here’s what I learned: Setting a character up with a problem—which is, of course, what a story, any story, demands above all else—isn’t enough. Problems carry a negative load. And as negative as we ourselves can be at times, we have a hard time caring about others who are only negative. But if our characters care about something in a deep, passionate and positive way, that caring will draw us to care about them. And then we’ll care about their problems, too.

It’s that simple. And that profound.

Blue-eyesAs I’m preparing to return to Blue-Eyed Wolf, I’ve been growing concerned that Angie, my main character, might be coming off as whiney and unappealing. She is grieving the loss of her much-older brother, who has enlisted to fight in Vietnam. And worse, in terms of her appeal as a character, there is no action she can take to bring him back. All she can do is grieve. So how do I make this passive, grieving girl appealing?

When I reenter the story, I’m going to experiment with a small change. Angie will be a passionate birder. Seeing her love something in a clear, positive way, a way that isn’t tangled with her anger and grief, will, I hope, give my readers a different perspective on her, a more reliable affection for her. And her birding will also fit seamlessly into the natural world that is her home and the base for the story.

Now . . . to see what happens.

Taking Sides

Killing Miss KittyIn 1976 when I published my first middle-grade novel, the lines were clearly drawn. If you wrote for young people, you had to be on their side, because there were clearly sides. Adults were on one. Kids were on the other. And though it’s trite to say it, the twain did very little meeting.

Adults, it was assumed, were to be banished from juvenile literature, or if they were there, they were to appear only in the shadowy background or to take their proper role in the story as the villains, the ones who had already destroyed the world, the ones who were incapable of understanding the clear-eyed truths so obvious to the young. I know of a group of children’s writers who met regularly in a critique group. Though mothers themselves, they took on the name “Kill the Mothers.”  It was an age of killing the mothers, of assuming we would all be better served by eliminating adults from our stories if not from the world entirely.

But I’m beginning to wonder. I have been writing and publishing in this field for nearly forty years, and I’m not sure whether the rules are changing or if my own foundation is shifting. What I am sure of is that I have grown weary of a story world without adults. In fact, increasingly, I find such a world narrow, stultifying, lacking in perspective, and–the worst possible criticism if we’re talking about stories–downright boring.

Now, granted, I’m 73 years old, so that statement may say much more about me than it does about contemporary juvenile literature. Maybe kids wouldn’t agree with me at all. That’s very likely. Maybe I’ve simply grown too old for the career that has sustained me for nearly forty years. That’s a possibility, too. I know writers younger than I am whose careers have quietly closed down because, while they still have all the strengths that built their careers, the market has moved on and left them behind.

But maybe, just maybe, there is a place in publishing for an old lady who doesn’t want to play by the rules any more. When I sit down to write these days, I need that adult voice enriching my stories, or at least I need adults–their problems, their failings, their wisdom–to be present in my story world.

Thus the voice of an adult narrator in Little Dog, Lost. Thus, too, the lonely old man, Charles Larue. Thus Mark’s mother who isn’t just a meanie who says her son can’t have a dog but who has a history of her own, painful and vulnerable, out of which her refusal comes.

Very Little PrincessThus the voice of an adult narrator in The Very Little Princess  and The Very Little Princess:  Rose’s Story and in Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins. For myself as a writer, I have come to need the wisdom and comfort of that mature perspective to make my stories work, and I am convinced that young readers can take comfort from that storyteller’s voice.

Recently I spoke in an eighth-grade classroom for one of my granddaughters. (I don’t go into schools any longer except for a grandchild.) Afterwards she said, “My friends think you’re a cute old lady, so I guess they liked you.”

I’ll take that, the old as well as the cute. One is a fact, the other a compliment.

How grateful I am to be permitted to speak for the young with this old voice. Grateful, and convinced that I still have something important to say.

An Imitation of Life?

WeavingI once had a friend who made a point of not telling me about the more dramatic events in her life because she was convinced that if she did she would find herself one day in one of my stories. The fact that she had never found herself—or anyone else she knew in my stories never assuaged her fears.

If she had only known, stories are not—as is often assumed—an imitation of life. They are far more an imitation of other stories.

Life, even an ordinary, mundane life, is almost infinitely complex in comparison even to the most intricate weavings of fiction. Stories are created by distillation, by selection, by leaving out all that doesn’t move this particular character in this particular story toward the particular conclusion that is sought. Stories are written to create meaning out of the jumble of our days, and meaning gets lost in the myriad details we call life. Meaning in stories is actually created as much by what is left out as what is left in.

I have found that when I start with a real place as the setting for a story, I have to struggle to keep my setting from intruding on my story. You may find a large oak tree growing in the center of my story even though the tree has no particular significance, but it will be there because, in the real place I’m writing about, the oak tree exists. If I’m imagining the setting, no oak trees grow there unless they serve the story, because it’s work, imagining oak trees, so I only imagine what my story needs.

If I start with an actual person to create a character, I will find myself telling this about him and then that and then something else, and the different parts of the real person I’ll reveal, all of them true, all of them real, will seem contradictory, because they won’t be focused on achieving a single effect as readers expect. That is what happened to the father in Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins, my collection of semi-autobiographical young-adult short stories. The main character’s father was modeled on my own father, and so he appeared in one story behaving in one way and in another behaving another—all true to my own father—but as one reviewer pointed out, legitimately enough, the parts didn’t add up to a whole.

A character I’ve created from whole cloth will seem more real, because he will be more consistent. We will understand who he is and what he is about. Consider Mark in Little Dog, Lost. He is a totally created character. The touch that brings him alive on the page came from my having to answer the question my editor asked, “Why does Mark want a dog?” And in answering that I moved beyond what I already knew, that Mark was the son of a single mother who was the mayor of Mark’s small town. But when I went searching for more, I found something central to my story, that Mark’s father had left his mother and him before Mark was even born, and in discovering that, I also discovered the longing that brings Mark alive.

So start from life? Of course. Start from all you have experienced and felt and known. But take just a dollop, a crumb, a seed and build upon it in your own imagination. Create a sleek and meaningful structure by holding back most of what you know.

Then all that will be left over to use in your next story.