Monthly Archives: June 2014

Story of a character–after she makes her appearance

Harriet Scott Chessman, who wrote  The Beauty of Ordinary Things, has invited me to do a blog post about characters. Harriet is an amazing person, intellect and writer.  There’s never a false note in her prose  Her earlier novels include Someone Not Really Her Mother, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper and Ohio Angels. Her  own thoughts about character are at

#Characterhttp://redroom.com/member/harriet-scott-chessman/blog/blog-hop.

When I agreed to do this blog hop I felt slightly duplicitous, because I rarely think about “character.” In fact, all the questions I’m going to answer except for the first question are either things I knew only after I finished writing the novel or more than half-way through. I first meet characters as strangers.  And this is in my last blog post called Character: An Explosion Between Strangers.  

So  here are my answers–with full disclosure that I discovered most of them after I finished writing and they weren’t part of conscious character development.

1. What is the character’s name?  Is she fictional or historic?

My character’s name is Elie Schacten.  She’s purely fictional, although after I wrote the book, I realized she looks a lot like my grandmother Grace who died when my father was six. I’ve only seen pictures of her–and all the pictures were in profile. Later, though, I realized that my sense of her spirit permeated the book.  And long before I began to write the book, I heard a woman who looked like her, starting to tell me the story.

2. When is the story set? And where?

The story begins in Germany after the battle of Stalingrad, when Germany began to crumble.   It’s set in an abandoned mine converted into a compound that houses people who speak and write different languages and answer letters to the dead The mine is called The Compound of Scribes. and has been converted to look like a city street, with cobblestones, a sun that rises and sets, and constellations in the sky when Hitler was born.  The Scribes are all people who would otherwise have been deported to camps.

3.  What is should we know about the character?

Elie Schacten is a Polish Catholic who is the head of the Compound and envoy for the Scribes. She collects mail at the outpost and is responsible for all the supplies. Elie also works for the Resistance and ingratiated herself with the Reich in order to have more knowledge and more power.  She’s dauntless in her need to rescue. One thing that kept striking me about Elie was her need for secrecy and privacy.   It was a privacy I felt I had to respect.  In fact,  I only discovered the reason for it near the end of the novel.

3.  What is her main conflict?  What messes up her life?

 I have trouble answering these sort of questions  because no character has a main conflict anymore than a person does.  It’s fairer to say that Elie has an event in her past that’s too painful to talk about and leads to dauntless acts of rescue.  If she’s conflicted at all,  it’s a conflict between protecting people who are already safe and sometimes endangering those very lives to rescue people who aren’t safe. Similarly, I wouldn’t say her life is “messed up.”  I would say that complications occur because Elie has the kind of hubris that many of us have when we’re going out on a limb for someone we love, or doing something that we feel is for the common good. Namely, we adopt a kind of magical thinking, assuming that because our intentions are good all the consequences will be good.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?  Elie’s ostensible role is to rescue.

  If I told you her ultimate goal, it would be a spoiler.  Read the book  to find out.

6. What is the title of this novel, and can we read more about it? Elie is in Heidegger’s Glasses.

You can order it from any bookstore or directly from Counterpoint Press.

7. When can we expect the book to be published?  And how can we read it? It was published in 2010 and 2011.  You can order it directly from Counterpoint Press or buy it or find it at a local bookstore.

Tagging five writers:

Next week, you’ll be hearing from five distinctive and talented writers.  They are (in alphabetical order):  Stacy Bierlein, Frances Lefkowitz, Paulette Livers, David Rocklin and Geoff Schutt.

STACY BIERLEIN is the author of the story collection A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends (March 2012). She is the editor of the award-winning anthology A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection (May 2008), and the coeditor of Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience (October 2011). She is a founding editor of the independent press Other Voices Books and co-creator of the Morgan Street International Novel Series. http://redroom.com/member/stacy-bierlein/blog

FRANCES LEFKOWITZ   is the author of To Have Not,  a SheKnows.com Best Memoir of 2010, as well as personal essays in The Sun, Superstition Review, Good Housekeeping (!) and others. Her fiction appears in Tin House, Glimmer Train, Fiction, Frederick Barthelme’s New World Writing and other journals, and she’s received two special mentions for the Pushcart Prize and one for Best American Essays. The former Senior Editor of Body + Soul magazine, Frances is now Book Reviewer for Good Housekeeping and a freelance writer for Health, Martha Stewart’s Whole Living, National Geographic’s Green Guide, and more. She also teaches workshops, coaches writers, and blogs about writing, publishing, and footwear at PaperInMyShoe.com. At home in Petaluma, CA, Frances is writing a new memoir, A Wave of Her Own, about learning to surf at age 36. www.franceslefkowitz.net/

PAULETTE LIVERS is a southerner living in Chicago. Her novel Cementville (Counterpoint, 2014), set in 1969, deals with the effects of social change on a rural community during the Vietnam War. Learn more about Paulette and her work at www.PauletteLivers.com and find her on Facebook athttps://www.facebook.com/PauletteLivers.Writer?ref_type=bookmark.

DAVID ROCKLIN is the author of The Luminist and the founder and host of Roar Shack, a Los Angeles-based reading series. He is at work on a new novel, The Night Language. He is represented by Fletcher & Co.www.davidrocklin.com/

GEOFF SCHUTT’S Eleanor can be found as a character-in-progress at “This Side of Paradise” (http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com). He has been awarded several grants for fiction-as-performance art, featuring interactive storytelling, and his work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He currently lives in the Boston area.http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com

 

 

Character: An Explosion between Strangers

 

For a long time I didn’t understand what people meant by “character”. In fact, the word still seems like an elusive function in an equally elusive calculus of fiction.    It’s a function with grave responsibilities: The main character, or characters,  must steer the story to shore or have a notable wreck. They must have conflicting motives–or (in simple language) things they want and don’t want. At the same time the writer is steering them, adjusting them, so the navigator isn’t really in charge.  Except for those times when writers say, “The character surprised me.”

This statement never seemed remarkable except  for the fact that the writer  seems surprised at the surprise when in fact all people—in and out of fiction—are unpredictable.

The innovative and radical psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion, has said that when two people meet, a kind of explosion occurs.  I think everyone can relate to this because the explosion doesn’t have to cause fireworks:  It can be a small shudder, a tremor.  It’s the explosion of meeting a stranger and knowing that you are a stranger to the person you are meeting.  It’s also an interpersonal explosion because each person knows they are stranger to the other.

This happens for me with people in fictional worlds as well as with people in what we call “the real world.” And for me, this is the beginning of what we call “character” and feels much more like meeting a person

By explosion I mean something physical and kinesthetic—the kind you feel when a stranger walks into a room.  It’s the explosion of encounter, of sheer physical embodiment. And when this happens—invited or not—someone slips from being an imaginary person to what I’ve learned to call a “character” in my story.

Eventually, I make a contract with this person (or people):  They’re charged with steering the story and I’m charged with seeing that they do.  It’s a crooked contract because we each can hoodwink the other.  I’ll find out things about them that they don’t know and they’ll discover things things about me that I don’t know. They may change the course of the navigation and I may surprise them by adjusting the stars. We’re unacknowledged doubles, dancing in a funhouse mirror.

Even though this explosion happens in fictional space, it still feels like a literal explosion And when it happens in this space I want to follow them  because they’re literally, physically, separate from me.

In other words: It’s the explosion of otherness that makes me curious.  They’re only interesting at this stage because an explosion has happened between us.

This literal, physical curiousity, gets me to walk on their streets, enter their rooms, discover their hideouts.  I learn the physical map of their lives. I may not know what they look like. But I feel them moving through space.  In other words, they’re embodied for me.

Now and then I don’t allow the explosion to occur, just the way I might ignore someone at a party.   This happens most often with incidental people, or what we call “minor characters.”   I’m not snubbing them.  I’m just failing to take them into account, the way it happens when someone is introduced and I don’t quite pause, don’t give myself over, don’t allow a meeting.

Whenever I don’t allow this meeting—however minor—I get into trouble. The person wanders around the story without apparent purpose and I have to go back and allow the explosion.  It’s like: Yes! I’m going to meet you. And I’m going to let you meet me.

Having made the initial disclaimer about character, I am, after all, writing about a character for a blog hop. The person who invited me is the highly original and poetic novelist Harriet Scott Chessman who approaches character with amazing deftness  in The Beauty of Ordinary Things. Harriet  Chessman cares deeply about people in and out of fiction and her compassion, perceptiveness and respect for otherness illuminates her book, as it illuminates her earlier novels (Someone Not Really Her Mother, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper and Ohio Angels)

Her thoughts about character are at:

#Characterhttp://redroom.com/member/harriet-scott-chessman/blog/blog-hop.