25th Trillium Award

FICTION CRAFT BY SHAUN SMITH, ET AL

 
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Inky Connections

With Alice Peterson, Janet Kellough, Grace O?Connell, Shree Ghatege, Jane Johnson, Vincent Lam, David Lee, Deryn Collier and Royston Tester.

How do you generate emotional connections between readers and characters?

Did you ever find yourself wondering why you care so much about a particular character in a novel or short story? After all, look at what you?re actually caring about: ink on paper. How is it that writers create those emotional connections between readers and ink? That?s the question Fiction Craft puts to nine authors this month, as we continue to look ?under the hood? of the act of scribbling stories.

It is a question I?ve long pondered: Why do some characters grab me and make me care while others leave me flat? I think that the most compelling characters are those who gain self awareness. That is, they gain knowledge of the fact that their life has been shaped by forces about which they had previously been unaware. When a character is tortured, we feel sympathy; but when that character gains full knowledge of what has been done to them, we feel grief. The privileged internal view, through which we share in the character?s spectrum of emotional response to their altered state -- shock, denial, anger, fear, resignation -- is arguably unique to fiction. When I write, I don?t think about how to make a character?s world come crashing down, but I know that that is what is going to happen to them. To paraphrase playwright David Mamet, the font of story is The Lie, and The Lie must somehow be reconciled, even if the truth is maddeningly tragic. Think of Lear, Huck Finn, Winston Smith, Jane Eyre and others like them ? characters who saw the scales fall away. These are the sort of characters who stay with us for years. For me, untruth, deception, dishonesty, The Lie must be the fabric of a story if it is going to compel me to write it. Out of that emerges character, once The Lie is exposed, and to be honest, I still don?t know exactly why that happens. Call it a sort of magic ? making people care about ink.

Now, here are some thoughts from other writers on how they make us care about ink.

 

Alice Peterson is the author of the short-fiction collection All the Voices Cry. She lives in Montreal, PQ.

A reviewer has remarked that my characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, and I think that?s an accurate statement, particularly in the stories in All the Voices Cry. When I am drafting a story I start with a situation and then I get the characters to talk to me about it at some length before I do any structural shaping. I am interested to know what they rattle on about, and why; what issues are important to them and what images they pull in to illustrate their arguments. I think of it as sitting down like a good friend and listening. My hope is that this approach makes the characters? concerns accessible to the reader and relevant to the form of the story.

My characters tend to have a very active and attentive connection to the present moment, informed by the past and informed by what they want in the future. And that means all things in the present moment ? weather, sounds, the environment, conversation?can be brought to bear on what may appear to be a small, but significant action or realization. This is one of the beauties of the short story form. Like a dewdrop that magnifies as is crosses a leaf, the short story form lets you get up close to one small action or decision within an entire life. Because my characters invest so much in their decisions, they become vulnerable. I can?t help it, but I tend to hope good things for my characters, even if those good things don?t occur within the bounds of the story.

 

Janet Kellough is the author of Sowing Poison and On the Head of a Pin. She lives in Prince Edward County, ON.

Strong description can make a tremendously evocative connection with readers, especially if the writer goes beyond the standard visual depiction of a scene.

Writing about the sensation of walking on a beach of loose stones as they slip and slide underneath the feet, for example, is something that almost everyone has done, and describing that feeling of uncertain balance catapults a reader into his or her own memory of that experience.

Go a little further. What does it smell like? The sour, mossy reek of seaweed? Diesel fumes from nearby fishing boats? Suntan lotion and burning charcoal? Smell is a powerful memory stimulus and it?s a tool that writers often overlook.

What do you hear? Children shrieking as they jump into the water? The wind as it howls an icy, northeast blast into your face? Waves smashing against the cliff that lies just ahead?

You fall. The stones are smooth, a cushion. Or jagged and unforgiving. Pain stabs your knee, your elbow, your face.

And the metallic taste of your own blood fills your mouth as the impact sends your tooth slicing into your lip.

You sense that someone is watching. Fear prevents you from turning your head to see who it is. Embarassment curls you up into a fetal ball. Relief releases a flood of tears.

Close your eyes. Imagine every detail. Be there. And then invite the reader to share your world.

 

Grace O?Connell is the author of Magnified World. She lives in Toronto, ON.

The first person who has to connect to the characters is the writer ? if the writer doesn't have that connection, the reader is already toast.

For the most part the connection forms naturally, but there are a few tricks to nudge things along. One thing I find helpful (for this and other issues) is reading aloud. This works especially well when you're writing in first person. By reading in the character's voice, you can sometimes find yourself more viscerally connected to him or her.

A good acid test for a connection is when you start to feel incensed or loyal towards your characters, or when you start to prefer some to the others. Basically, when they become people.

So once you feel you, the writer, are connected to the characters, you can start thinking about how your reader might forge the same connection. It's important not to artificially withhold information from your readers just for the sake of creating tension or forward momentum. It's also important to create a strong, individual voice. Your characters can't speak like anyone else or even exactly like each other. That doesn't mean you give them horrible folksy catchphrases or speech patterns. But their dialogue and (if applicable) internal monologues need to be as idiosyncratic as real speech, as anchored in details and images, exaggerations and longing. You need to know what they know, and also what they don't know, both in the intellectual sense and emotionally.

And if you manage to pull all that off perfectly, give me a call and let me know how to do it.

 

Shree Ghatege is the author of the novel Thirst and the short-fiction collection Awake When All the World is Asleep

The expectation and perhaps subliminal hope on the part of the reader - and the novelist - of the development of an emotional bond between him and the fictional characters that occupy the pages of a novel is an important aspect of why writers write and why readers read. A rewarding read implies that at some level the perfections, the imperfections, the circumstances, and the relationships of the characters are being experienced and felt by the reader. An honest, fearless and non-manipulative treatment of circumstance and character by the writer goes a long way in strengthening the emotional connection between the reader and the individuals that take shape on the page. Once the trust between the characters and the reader is established, it stops mattering whether the reader or anyone in the reader?s acquaintance has found herself in a particular situation however dangerous, absurd, melodramatic or joyful; what is of significance is that through the emotional connection that has been established between character and reader, the reader now willingly enters a made-up world and stays there as long as the novelist is able to keep her there. Successful books, plays and TV dramas that leave a lot to be desired in terms of writing and plot may nevertheless be effective and satisfying because the characters they portray have a strong emotional pull where they make the reader feel for their circumstances, they make the viewer care. The deeper a novelist goes into the inner life of his characters, uncovers the factors that motivate them, clarifies the substance of their fears, their desires and longings, the further he will elicit from the reader feelings of compassion, empathy, understanding and or forgiveness, whatever the case might be. An honest treatment of characters and an authentic, truthful portrayal of their circumstances is one of the keys to generating a strong emotional connection between fictional characters and the reader who willingly enters their world.

 

Jane Johnson is the author of the novels The Sultan?s Wife, The Tenth Gift and The Salt Road. She lives in Cornwall, England, and Morocco.

Readers spend hours in the company of a central character so writers had better make them engaging! Imagine being stuck on a long-haul flight with a dreary chatterer in the next seat. (Though at least as a reader you can simply close the covers...)

The Sultan?s Wife is told largely from the point of view of a black slave known only by the derogatory name of Nus-Nus, meaning ?half and half?. Swimming against the glittering tide of intrigue in the court of a cruel and arbitrary sultan is perilous: Nus-Nus is constantly under threat. But to make his world real and that threat tangible you must make the reader care about him.

He has suffered a great deal in his past life but I don?t want readers to feel sorry for Nus-Nus: that creates distance. I want their palms to sweat when he is scared; their hearts to beat faster when his does. But how?

The classic trick is to deliver the story in the first person, so that the reader looks out of the protagonist?s eyes and inhabits his thoughts. Few of my readers, I am sure, have direct experience of slavery, let alone of castration, so to generate a sense of identification is a challenge. But within minutes of being in Nus-Nus?s company, I hope the reader will be drawn in. He is a charming fellow: funny, warm, intelligent. But he is also damaged, wary, embittered, since human beings are complex and contradictory. Balancing those traits for a novelist is like walking a wire: too much of the latter may alienate; too much of the former make him a shallow construction.

I hope I make readers want to know more about what makes Nus-Nus who he is, what makes him tick. How has he landed in this desperate situation? What is it like to be a virile, beautiful man rendered suddenly a eunuch? How do you maintain courage, optimism and dignity in the face of such a fate? Revealing his story little by little is one way of doing this: giving readers pieces of a puzzle that can be completed only at the very end of the book.

Readers are curious people: why else open a book if you are not a nosy-parker? So teasing can be a novelist?s best tool. Show a glimpse of something dark, something fascinating, something wonderful: then draw the curtain over it again, and make readers wait for the pay-off (I love a novel with a revelatory structure!). A good storyteller is a great big tease; a flirt, a beguiler, a web-spinner. Those are qualities I lack in life: but give me the anonymity of a notebook and pen and I will happily spin a web of secrets and unexpected outcomes.

 

Vincent Lam is the author of the novel The Headmaster?s Wager and the short-fiction collection Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures. He lives in Toronto, ON.

My approach to characters is centered upon my own emotional connections with them. I need to feel strongly about my characters because I rely on their instincts and decisions to drive the events of my fiction. My touchstone is their emotions. This is essential because only with this type of deep, inner commitment to their lives can I see the story as they would. Without this, I could never even begin to tell their story.

I am aware that readers will also meet my characters, and of course I hope that they will also feel emotional connections to them. However, I can't ? and don?t wish to ? dictate precisely what emotions readers will feel and experience. All I can do is be truthful to the world that I see through my characters? eyes. The same paragraphs and the same dialogue will be read by people with unique life experiences and different views of the world. They will come to a variety of opinions about any book that I write. Likewise, I know that readers may experience many different emotional connections with the characters I've created. Those relationships will all be particular to each reader.

In my recent novel, 'The Headmaster's Wager', there has been a huge range of reader reactions to the protagonist, Percival Chen. That makes sense in a way, because he is a man with many faces. He is a school headmaster, gambler, womanizer, and father. Far beyond these simple facts of his biography, however, people feel strongly in different ways. Some readers feel very sympathetic towards him despite his faults. Others tell me that they did not like him. Many people tell me that they experienced both ? that at times they wanted to grab Percival and shake him, and yet that they cared deeply about him. I like to think there is a kind of truth to the rendering of a character that elicits such vigorous engagement. He seems to be getting up off the page and walking into people?s emotions.

People talk to me about Percival as if they knew him; as if he were a friend of theirs about whom they were very worried or quite upset. Their emotional connections to him are deeply felt whether positive, negative, or both. No one has ever told me that he was a dull sort of person who could be easily overlooked. When I reflect on how this range of reader connections to Percival has come into existence, I think that it has happened because I feel that complete range of emotions towards him, and tried to be honest about them. I am drawn to him. He drives me crazy. I admire many of his qualities. I am aghast at how his faults wound both himself and those around him. I believe that the emotional connections between readers and my characters are possible, because I entered fully into those connections with my characters, and tried to be true to them in the written word.

 

David Lee is the author of the novel Commander Zero. He lives in Hamilton, ON.

I am pretty sure that our affinity to literary characters is generated not by what they do or say, but by what they want.

I guess in Commander Zero the best example would be Sandy, the protagonist?s sister (or maybe she is the protagonist, I?ll let the reader decide) who wants what many of us want at some time or other: to be freed from the influence of the person she loves the most. In fact ?Zero? himself, Sandy?s brother Joey, as a character is shaped less by his own desires than by the desires of those around him. The reader gets less of a sense of Joey himself than a sense of his imaginative world?the people and things around him and the connections he makes between them, the relationships which, rightly or wrongly, he discerns. In this sense maybe he shares a kind of negative space with Nicholas Jennings, the narrator of Anthony Powell?s 12-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time. Nicholas is an easy-going guy himself, but (unlike Joey, who is dazed and confused and knows nothing of irony) he perceives and portrays very clearly the swirling universe of desires of the people around him?some, he observes, mainly want pleasure, and some mainly power. The characters most shaped by their desires, such as Widmerpool and Pamela Flitton, are the novel?s most resonant.

In film (and I gleaned this ?desire? principle from a movie, though you?ll never guess which one) a great character defined almost wholly through desire is Scarlett O?Hara in Gone With the Wind. She is a nasty little slave-owning bitch who sucks people into her life?men in particular?and discards them as it suits her. There is no good reason for us to take sides with her, and regarding her own emotional needs, her judgement is rotten. But when she wants something, she wants it and she goes out and sinks her teeth into it?and we are with her all the way.

 

Royston Tester is the author of the short-fiction collections Fatty Goes to China and Summat Else. He lives in Toronto, ON.

Think of your favorite novel. Is there a character who has never quite left you? Why is that? As readers, we will have different responses (My guy, for example, is Paul Morel in D.H. Lawrence?s Sons and Lovers --- (I?ll change all my passwords tomorrow)). Imagine trying to translate those differences into techniques for writers to follow. In creating fiction, whether we like it or not we?re usually in the game of emotional truth. The best way of generating emotional connections between character and reader is by not worrying too much about the ?connections? part. I?d focus exclusively on the character. Keats would define this sort of strategy, or claptrap, as ?negative capability? where a writer, or any artist, ?is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.? I sit my ?character-creating technique? somewhere between E. M. Forster?s ?Only what is seen sideways sinks deep? and Proust/Nabokov?s ?Only the rereading counts.? It?s the best I can say. The task for the writer, I feel, is to create so much of a first impression with a character, that the reader wants a relationship?a fling at least, or a room. Whether you, as author, do this through economy and concentration or by ornately woven indirection or by a stewing of the lot, doesn?t really matter. What is crucial to that powerful first impression? Robert Henri in The Art Spirit offers insightful comments about how to improve your oil painting. Yep, I did say that. One especially telling moment is Henri?s advice for depicting a life-model. He suggests that his apprentices go into the room where the figure poses?and look very closely, stroll about, and get an ?all-round concept.? The students then return to an easel in the previous room?out of sight of the model. Henri?s charges get those impressions down fast?yet can revisit the other room at any time, but without notes or sketches. How often would we rush between those rooms? For a writer, where are those rooms? Do we use tricks, a telling detail, to remember what we ?saw? or felt? Or do we just get it down? In the end, what an infuriating distinction lies between what we ?witness?, what we imagine as we write, what we actually write, and what a reader feels. As friendly Henri points out though, what we?and his steady-eyed followers?are trying to capture is what we apprehended that very first instant at the model?s side. The total character. The first impression?that buck naked read from ass to apex. The rest?plot, setting, conflict, imagery etc. in a writer?s case?is aftermath. Important, integral aftermath. But aftermath, all the same. It?s that initial, promiscuous thrill the author seeks over and over in depicting the character. How do you generate emotional connectedness with a reader? You need strident doubt about your ability to capture anything. Be convinced that what you write is drivel. Yet, and therefore?, without any falsehood or ?irritable reaching? as you ?move between rooms?, you tease out a character of such uniqueness that neither you nor the reader can avert an eye as she becomes your unexpected story.

 

Deryn Collier is the author of the novel Confined Space. She lives in Nelson, BC.

Don?t you love that moment in a horror film when you jump up from the couch and yell: ?Don?t go down to the dock! No! Don?t . Go down. To the dock.?

Of course, in the Friday the 13th movies, the last girl alive always goes down to the dock.

I play with a (hopefully more subtle) variation of this when building those all-important threads between reader and character in my own work. As I crime fiction writer I know that my readers are looking for that sweet spot between characters and plot: characters they care about and plot that pulls them forward at just the right pace.

One way to accomplish this is through point of view. Writing from multiple viewpoints I can tease out those places in the story where the reader knows more than a character does. This is particularly effective if the reader knows that a character is in danger ? a danger the character is blithely unaware of as yet. The tension causes the reader to ask: How is she going to get out of this? When will she find out what I already know? The search for answers draws the reader further and further into the story.

In the opening pages of Confined Space we witness a tragic workplace accident in a brewery. A chapter or so later, we watch the safety manager unwrap a plaque recognizing 500 accident-free days in the same brewery. It?s an irony, yes ? but one only the reader is aware of. There?s trouble coming, and the reader wants to be there for that moment when the character realizes: she?s celebrating too soon.

At least, that?s the theory. The hope is that each question, each tension, is a thread that pulls the reader in, until, thread by thread ? question asked, and then answered, tension introduced, and then resolved ? the reader is gradually woven right into the story, alongside the characters.

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Read past editions of Fiction Craft:

April 2012: What is your best advice on how to write the ending of a novel?

March 2012: What methods do you use to get the story moving forward again when the writing stalls?

February 2012: How do you approach the use of conflict in storytelling?

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Shaun Smith is the author of the YA novel Snakes & Ladders and the non-fiction collection Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food & Chefs, which is currently available for Kindle, and is forthcoming in print from Tightrope Books. He has published journalism with CBC.ca, Quill & Quire, Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and numerous other outlets. His book blog "Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries" appears each Sunday (no kidding!) on Open Book Toronto.

Follow Shaun on Twitter.

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