By Janet Moore
Creating compelling characters is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. As the first draft takes shape, characters appear, some boldly, others more timidly, each with a distinct voice and perspective. It’s only in later drafts that the full picture becomes clear, complete with these new and interesting beings who invite readers to suspend belief and join them on their journeys. Homer knew this; so did Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, Flannery O’Conner and Mark Twain. It is what made J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series so successful, and it’s why Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes are still perennial favorites. What all these authors have in common is the ability to create trouble and lots of it.
I was reminded of why we writers must create crises, detail disturbances and disrupt the status quo during a recent week-long workshop in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Asheville, North Carolina. Our teacher was Marjorie Hudson, a generous instructor and gifted writer (Searching for Virginia Dare and Accidental Birds of the Carolinas). With each manuscript we critiqued, she showed us ways to intensify the plight our characters’ dilemmas, often through the Point-of-View narrator. When done well, readers turn the page, read the next chapter and ask, What’s next?”
To drive home this point, Marjorie had us examine excerpts from works by skilled storytellers, who early on had us asking that question. Take, for example, the opening sentences of Pam Durban’s short story “Rowing to Darien.”
March 1839, just after midnight on the Altamaha River. The air smells of silt and fish and wood smoke. The hoot of a horned own carries across the water, the creak of oarlocks and the splash of oars. The moon is up, one night past full; it throws a bright track on the water, and across the track Frances Butler rows a boat with a lantern set on the thwart. Out under the big moon that lights the whole sky, the lantern flame looks a fragment of the larger brightness. That’s how she thinks of it as she rows – a mission, not a flight – to dignify the journey and keep the fear at bay.
In these few sentences we already know that all is not well with Frances Butler. Durban has baited and set the hook, and with each successive sentence, she reels us in.
Creating trouble is not the exclusive purview of fiction writers, as Joy Castro so efficiently shows us in the opening sentence of her essay, “Grip.” Over the crib in the tiny apartment, there hung a bullet-holed paper target, the size and dark shape of a man, its heart zone and head zone, perforated where my aim had torn through: thirty-six little rips, not strays, centered on spots that would make a man die. Packed into her opening are unsettling details – a baby’s crib, a target peppered with perfectly placed bullets. Our narrator is quite literally a “pistol packing mama.” Her words scream trouble, and we want to know more.
For those of us who aspire to publication someday, somewhere, anywhere, it is helpful to remember that evocative phrasing and rich dialogue are only made better when the fate of our characters is at considerable risk. Trouble builds character, in literature and in life. Michael Ondaatje knew that when he wrote The English Patient, recently named the Golden Man Book Prize winner in this the fiftieth year of the international prize.
Every major character in this memorable novel faces daunting dilemmas, some the result of war, others the result of love, rejection, fear, jealousy and anger. These men and women carry us beyond the Egyptian desert to war-torn Italy and eventually to tranquil Canada. But when it comes to Ondaatje’s characters and their stories, tranquility is in short supply. Their failings and victories reveal the best and worst of humanity, and it is in that poignant dichotomy that we fall in love with them over and over, again.
If, as Francine Prose recommends, we read like a writer, then our path to creating powerful characters is clear. Read the works of skilled writers whose work we admire and look for the trouble. It won’t take long to find.