This was Barbara Jackson‘s question: “Your experience as an English teacher must have something to do with your ability to write such cohesive books with such interesting characters–ones that the reader can relate to as if they were real people. Therefore, my question is: Do you feel this way as well, or do you have another explanation?”
Having been an English major and an English teacher and a lifelong reader has certainly helped me as a writer. The English language is something I love and understand can use with relative ease. I am not a speed reader. Indeed, according to an on-line test I did a few days ago, I read 13% more slowly than the average reader. I am not surprised. Although there are certainly books that grab me and have me racing for the end just so that I can find out what happens, in the main I read to savor the story and the characterization and the style and the author’s voice. As I writer, I use language and style to create all the elements that I hope will draw readers in and keep them in.
However, my main focus as a writer is always character and the development of a love story. And it is in the understanding of character and the ability to identify with all kinds of people that I believe I have been specially gifted. Perhaps it comes of being an introvert or preferring to watch people than to occupy center stage myself, but I do have the ability to put myself into other people’s skin, to understand who they are, to know what it is like to BE them. I used to assume that everyone can do this, but I know from my experiences as a teacher of literature that it is not so. I do my character creation almost entirely from imagination and very little from research. I put myself inside the character and live the story from the inside out. It is always a relief to hear from readers that I have got a particular type of character just right. I heard from a blind lady recently. She asked me how I had got the blind Vincent’s character so right in THE ARRANGEMENT. When I wrote my deaf heroine in SILENT MELODY, I did not know that my editor at the time had a deaf daughter. She was able to tell me that I had got the character right. I do not know any blind or deaf people, but I know instinctively what it must feel like. I do not look for the handicap, the disability, though. I look for the particular ability that is different from the norm.
The secret to writing compelling characters, though, I think, is not just to get the details right, but to get deep into the soul. And to do that, once I feel I know everything there is to know about the character, I usually ask the same question: where is his/her pain? There is pain in all of us. Often finding it is the key to understanding. And once I have the key, then I can unlock all the carefully repressed secrets and set about finding a way for the character to be healed so that he/she can be whole and able both to love and to be loved–and (in many ways most important) can love him/herself.
The character understanding and development and the love story are all one and the same in my books. I LOVE that Hafiz quotation above. I love uncovering the darkness at the depth (and sometimes not so deep) of my characters and bringing them into the light of wholeness and happiness and love.
To one person who leaves a comment below before the end of Friday, February 21, I will send a copy of SIMPLY LOVE, which has two of my most wounded characters. It will have to be the British edition of the book–I don’t have a picture of that specific cover, I’m afraid. The winner of my post two weeks ago is Kathy Gearin. Congratulations to her, and thanks to all of you who left a comment.