Armchair ePublishing: We sent out the question, Who is writing this story? You or them? What happens when a character takes over?
Author, Judith Kirscht
Who’s Writing This Story? I think one of the most crucial lessons a novelist must learn is to let go of a character when he or she comes to life. I learned mine when I took a draft of my first novel off to Bread Loaf writers’ retreat back in the 70s. John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction, was conference leader, and I had the honor of a personal review of my draft. He had much to say that was positive, BUT. Always the “but.” He went through one chapter underlining characters who expressed the author’s rather than their own viewpoint. Those characters were straw-men (or women) for the author’s point of view. Those who have read The Art of Fiction will know that Gardner’s central thesis is that there is a moral standard for writing fiction and its central principal is that the author must love his or her characters. Needless to say, I failed the test on those underlined. Lesson learned.
Sometimes that release is a real struggle. In a more recent novel manuscript, Hawkins Lane, I realized that the heroine was heading toward adultery. I have little sympathy with adultery and didn’t want to follow her; I actually stopped writing the story until I convinced myself I had no choice.
So, here’s the result.
The mountain ranger heroine, Erica, crippled in a riding accident, has discovered that her husband, Ned, has removed the key to the jeep out of fear that she will come to further grief. She has struggled down the lane that connects their home to the road and across the road to the campsite of Ned’s ne’er-do-well brother, Billy.
“Well, good morning!” [Billy]
She looked up, blinking, into Billy’s face. “Good morning. Thought I’d see if I could make it this far.”
“Looks like you did, and just in time for a cup of coffee.” He waved her to a seat.
She approached and looked down doubtfully at the log he’d indicated. It was too far down.
“Here,” he said, jumping to his feet. “I’ll get a more civilized chair.” He brought a folding camp chair from his tent, steadying it as she lowered herself into it. “That’s a long way.”
“Sure is.” Longer than he knew. She looked up and accepted the tin mug of coffee he held out.
“You’re a gutsy lady.” He lowered his bulk onto the log with a sigh. “Ned’s a lucky man.”
“Lucky?” She laughed and took a gulp of coffee. “With me hanging around his neck? I don’t think so.”
“You don’t do much hanging, I wouldn’t think.”
She stared into the embers of his morning fire. “I didn’t used to, and I have to get back to that. Ned doesn’t understand. I took the jeep for a drive yesterday. We had a row about it.”
“He’s scared, Erica. That’s all. Afraid it will happen again.”
She looked up at him. “I know. But—he’s also angry. I’ve never seen him like this.” Except for the face that came at her in dreams.
Billy let out a sigh and poked the embers with his stick. “Fear comes out that way, sometimes, in a man. Don’t know why. Just does.”
They sat for a long time in companionable silence, drinking coffee, poking the embers, listening to the plop of pinecones falling in the woods behind them. Somewhere, a long way off, water tumbled over rocks, and Erica quieted enough to ask herself what impulse had propelled her here. Defiance triggered by the missing key. That was easy; she shied away from the harder question—why she’d come here.
Billy slapped at the first mosquito of the day and stirred. “I was heading to the high ridges today, to clear brush from the trail. Would you like to ride along? Seems you could use an outing.”
“I’d love to.” She caught her breath at the gentleness of his tone. So like his brother, whose gentleness had been a casualty of his fear. He steadied the chair so she could push up with her hands as though it was simply the courteous thing to do. As she walked to the truck, she wore shoes of lead. She never could have walked back to the house. Thank God for Billy. She pulled the battered truck’s squawking door open, then balanced on her bad leg and tried to lift her right one. No luck. She’d burned them out. Billy put his hands to her waist and lifted her to the seat.
“Thank you.” She sighed. “I can usually manage, but—don’t tell Ned you had to help me, okay?”
“Okay.” He grinned like a little boy enjoying a secret, then closed the door without further comment and went around to the driver’s side.
Meet Judith Kirscht
I was born, raised, educated and married in Chicago, and raised my family in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I went back to school as an adult and began to write, winning two writing awards from the university—one for a novel and another for an essay.
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The Author in all of us
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