characterization, part two

Here’s Cindy’s email question again:

My (compound) question is this: What else can I do to ensure that my characters are not too far off the mark, and how much should I worry about it? As far as possible I’ve based my characters on historical fact, but it looks as though a fair amount of extrapolation will be necessary. It seems to me, at this point in my literary development, at least, that one of the worst things that could happen would be for my work to be dismissed as inaccurate.

I take this question to be about more than one issue. It has to do with the nuts and bolts of storytelling (setting up, undertanding and following a character around) — when that character is from a very different time and place.

The first part of the question is relevant to any kind of storytelling. There are a lot of ways to try to get closer to a character, exercises that range from the odd (go out and decide what clothes they’d like or not like, what they would order for breakfast at a particular restaurant) to the scholarly: not to ask ‘what happens now?’ but to ask ‘why does this happen now’ (which some theorists will tell you is the ‘better’ question, and maybe it is. What do I know.)

Here’s the thing. You need to know the character very well. You need to know what she wants, and what is stopping her from getting what she wants. It’s by means of that conflict that the character becomes real to the readers. That’s true of anybody, whether they lived in the year 200 BC or in the year 2040.

Now, if your character does happen to be living in the year 200 BC or the year 1830, your job is that much more difficult because while human motivations are basically the same, the way people go about getting what they want depends a lot on the society they live in. I find it hard to write characters who really, truly are governed and even terrorized by strict religious beliefs because it’s almost impossible for me to get my mind to that place. It’s easier for me to get close to a character who is schizophrenic than one who really, truly believes in the literal word of the bible. So I avoid such characters — lazy of me? Maybe. That’s one of the benefits of writing fiction, you get to make up your own world.

But say you’ve got some characters (as Cindy does) who lived a long time ago, and you want to do them justice, or come as close to doing them justice as you can. My suggestion here is pretty much always the same. Find diaries and letters of the time, and read them. They will give you more information, real information, than any history could ever hope to impart. Sometimes those kinds of documents are hard to get hold of, that’s true. It might take some digging. But it is always worth it. When I was writing a study of language change in 16th century Nuremberg (long story, and a long time ago) I read volumes of diaries and letters written by nuns, women whose husbands were away on business trips, boys at university, etc etc, and it was those letters that let me hear their voices, for the first time.

So you do your homework, and you work hard on understanding the character, and you stay true to them. That’s all you can do. That is fertile ground out of which you may well be able to coax a good story.

One more thing: if you let your fear of potential criticism stop you, you’ll never finish anything. Not everybody will appreciate what you write, and some people will dislike it intensely. There’s no avoiding that. Will you let those people keep you from telling stories that interest you? I hope not.

Somewhere out there is the (anonymous) reviewer for Publishers Weekly (probably a graduate student being paid $25 a review, and resentful as hell) who wrote that my novels are populated by “color by number cartoon characters.” And there’s another one (maybe the same one?) who compared Elizabeth and Nathaniel Bonner to Wally and June Cleaver. But I’m still writing, and I’ll keep writing. And you should too. If you stopped, you’d be giving that kind of critic what he or she wants: People like that don’t care about the story, they only care about who gets their writing in print. Especially because it most probably isn’t them.

libraries, ode to; Jetta Carleton

As a little girl I would walk two city miles to the public library on Lincoln Avenue on Chicago’s north side, no matter what the weather. I think I checked out every book in the children’s section before I was ten. If the building hadn’t been converted to condos (I should hate this idea, but then I can imagine what a great place that must be to live) I could show you still where certain books sit the the shelves because I checked them out so often: A Wrinkle in Time or Up a Road Slowly or Our Year Began in April.

I have a great respect for libraries and librarians of all kinds. Here in my small town the public library gets almost no public funding, but they provide wonderful services anyway. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we lived for ten years, there was a fantastic public library with every possible service, as well as the university’s top-ranked research library. I was spoiled, then. Now I have to make due with interlibrary loan, the internet, and buying lots of books I would ordinarily check out for a few weeks and take back.

There’s a ranking of public libraries (of course, we love to rank things). Like any ranking it is flawed, but it does establish one thing: In the big city category, the Denver Public Library ranks first. Now, I have nothing against Denver, really, but this seems to me a case of gluttony. Denver already has The Tattered Cover Bookstore, my favorite bookstore in the whole world. And it’s got a good university library too. Really. I ask you.

So if you have a good public library, count your blessings. If your public library isn’t quite so wonderful, maybe you could help them out a little, eh? Especially when it comes to public funding.
One other thing, because I ran into this book on my shelf today and whenever I do I want to sit down and read it all over again.

The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton.

Publisher: Bantam Books; Reprint edition (December 1984)
ASIN: 0553244221
sadly out of print

I first read this book in German when I was living in Austria. I loved it so much I tracked down the original English, and ever since I’ve been re-reading it on a regular basis. Whenever I see a copy in a used bookstore I buy it to give away. This is the story of a farm family in Missouri, set in the early part of the last century. Each section is told from the perspective of a different family member. This is a beautifully written, carefully constructed story that I have never tired of over the years. I gave it to my daughter to read this summer. She was doubtful (the cover of this particular edition was particularly awful, I admit) but she read it on my recommendation and we had long talks about it. The really sad thing, she says, is that Jetta Carleton never wrote another novel.

Jetta Carleton’s obituary, from the Albuquerque Journal on December 31, 1999.

JETTA LYON , 86, of Santa Fe died Tuesday following a stroke. She was a writer. Her major work, written under her maiden name, Jetta Carleton, was ‘The Moonflower Vine,’ a novel from her childhood in rural Missouri. The book was published by Simon and Schuster in 1962 and became an immediate best-seller in both hardback and paperback. It was a selection of the Literary Guild and the Readers Digest Condensed Book Club. She was a graduate of Cottey College and the University of Missouri. She taught school briefly, wrote for radio in Kansas city and for television and advertising in New York. She and her husband lived in Hoboken, N.J., and Washington, D.C., before building a home in Santa Fe in 1970. They founded The Lightning Tree press in 1973, publishing nearly 100 titles. The Rocky Mountain Book Publishers Association honored them in 1991 with its first Rittenhouse Award for lifetime contributions to regional publishing. She was preceded in death by her husband of 50 years, Jene Lyon. She is survived by a sister and grand-nephew in Wichita, Kan. Friends scatter her ashes at her home in the Santa Fe foothills at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Santa Fe Funeral Options.