The Love of a Writer

Love amazes me, more often this time of year than any other. The love that drives an exhausted parent to endure the bright plastic torture of Toy R Us. The love that keeps a smile on the face of a Salvation Army bell ringer long after most of us would have left that bucket to fend for itself. The love that makes us tear up when the season brings back a stray memory of someone once dear to us. Love of family, love of friends, love of faith. One of the most striking things about fiction is how it can trigger love in us for people who aren’t even real. But I think it goes further than that: without the capacity for love, we wouldn’t have fiction writing. Fiction is the art of human empathy.

How many of us have been so worried about a character that we couldn’t bear to stop reading well past a sane bedtime? Literary or genre fiction, for adults or children, it doesn’t matter: if the character is well crafted, we care. The third and fourth Harry Potter books kept me up for a week. I’m still worried about Theo in Goldfinch. When distressed about the plight of overworked horses in England, Anna Sewell turned a horse into a distinctive character and engaged the sympathies of a nation. After all these years, I can’t get through a single chapter of Black Beauty without choking up.

Love happens with a character similar to how it happens in life. We as readers have to meet someone very specific and real. Not perfect. We need to perceive that he or she faces challenges, just as we face challenges. We need to see attributes that we can relate to, such as humor, self-deprecation, courage, vulnerability, determination. We need to feel that the character truly wants something to stir our wanting it for him or her. The problems need to be big enough to engage our sympathies and interest. And there need to be details – lots of telling details – to conquer disbelief and break down our defenses.

But the key is that love must happen first with the writer. We as writers need to believe in our characters and be fully engaged with their struggles. We need their reality to break down our own defenses as well. I finally fell in love with my newest protagonist a few weeks ago, after months of fine tuning her voice, delving her history, and reimaging her story. Before that, I had an unusual character who interested me, the beginnings of a voice, an original premise, problems that I wasn’t yet sure how to solve . . . but I wasn’t carrying the character in my heart. I had to keep asking her questions. Why do you care so much? What are you afraid of? Why does that hurt? What do you hope for? I had to discover her past to care about her present, even if not all of it would appear in the book.

Loving your characters doesn’t mean you should shield them. It means you should trust them, and trust yourself. You need to throw life at them, be hard on them, push them farther out to sea. Force them to become more than they were. Love means you care about them despite their foibles, but it also means you need to respect their right to make mistakes and grow. The love of a true friend or wise parent, or maybe we need to create a new category: the love of a writer.

At heart, isn’t that why we do this? For love. It’s the only way this crazy business makes sense. To share with others the stories of people whom we can only imagine, and yet believe are worthy of real empathy and understanding. Worthy of love.



Pushing Your Characters Deeper

Characters are tricky. You’d think they’d do whatever you want. You’d think they’d be as easy to write up as a list. Strong but vulnerable, damaged but tries to hide it, wants something (of course), and has to fight for it. Okay, go. That’s the kind of start that leaves us staring at the screen. Characters are made up of specifics. They look and act a certain way. Their voice reflects their history, as well as their attitude. They have dreams and carry pain. To be authentic, their actions and decisions need to be true to who they are. Writers often begin with some insights about their characters, but may have trouble fleshing them out more fully. A few key techniques can help you to crack them open.

1. Asking Questions

In his lectures at Off Campus Writers’ Workshop, Fred Shafer – literary editor, writer, and writing teacher par excellence – suggests that writers should try to move in and out of their characters: outside to assess and ask questions, and then inside to find answers. He is talking about probing questions, the same as you might ask a loved one in trouble. For example, I like to ask my characters: What are you thinking about? What worries you? Why do you seem to be in pain? What are you hoping for? Why does it matter to you? And perhaps most important in my experience: What haven’t you told me yet? You also want to ask them things more particular to your piece. The answers to all these questions will push your characters deeper and open up new territory for your story. And even if some of the answers don’t end up on the page – they may form part of your Hemingway iceberg – they will increase your understanding of the characters and lead you to places that otherwise you might never discover.

2. Taking on the Part

Conveying character requires empathy, and even personal identification. I write about how to engage your sympathetic imagination in Writing as a Full Body Experience. Some writers may find it helpful to approach this as a type of acting. You take on the part of the character in your mind, holding their attitudes and feelings inside yourself, as well as an awareness of what’s recently happened to them in the story and whatever is relevant from what’s happened to them in the past. I know of writers who even like to throw on a hat or scarf as if wearing a costume. Sanford Meisner, a pioneer of method acting, describes acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” I would apply the same concept to writing fiction.

3. Watching for Clues

I believe the subconscious is deeply engaged in the crafting of fiction. The truths that pull at us, the characters that attract us, the problems that engage us – they resonate with us for reasons. We may not always know, or even need to know, what they are. Intuition comes out of this relationship between writers and the work that calls to us. Sometimes things we’ve written without conscious thought are just sitting there, waiting for us to dig in. I mention in Watchman: Cynicism or Hope that Harper Lee left herself a clue in the earlier novel – about perpetually making secret trips to the past – that should have caught her attention, even if her editor hadn’t made her rewrite her book to do that very thing. As you review your work, keep asking yourself: What did I mean when I wrote that? Is there something else there? Try free-writing a new paragraph and see what else comes to mind.

Pushing your characters deeper can be scary for writers. The questions you ask may be ones you’re not prepared to answer in your own life. The part you take on may take you someplace you’re not wanting to go. The clues you leave behind may be unconscious for good reason. In fiction, we can reshape the hurtful and repurpose the ugly, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to keep our perspective. But I think if you’ve begun to put it on the page, your own mind believes you’re ready. You may also find truth, and beauty you didn’t realize was there.