Monday, August 25, 2008

Writing Lessons: Creating Character, Part 1

Love all your characters.

There is no “story” if readers don’t care about your characters. Before a reader will care, you need to feel passionately loyal to each and every one of your characters. Even a character who abuses and hurts others needs to be loved enough to be understood.

In Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Cholly Breedlove is the perfect example of a despicable character who is rendered compassionately. Drunk, alienated, overwhelmed by his own self-loathing, Cholly rapes his daughter. Confusing the image of his daughter’s foot with a happier memory of loving his wife, the horrible, incestuous touch occurs. But his motive was to touch her tenderly.

Even as readers hate Cholly, hate the brutality of his actions, they also feel sympathy because Morrison, in prior scenes, has shown Cholly, as a child, abandoned by his mother and later rejected by his father; shown Cholly being forced to perform sexually under the flashlight glare of racists who damage his innocent first love; shown how money worries, falsely romantic movies, and a punitive religion drove a wedge between the love he and his wife once shared. Cholly, a “burnt-out, black man,” can’t “breed love” because society, over a lifetime, has poisoned his life’s soil. He has no nurturing, sustaining love left to give. When Cholly rapes, we won’t, don’t excuse his actions, but we do mourn for him as well as for his daughter. Because Morrison cared enough about Cholly to understand him fully, she reveals him with powerful empathy.

Human behavior is complex; it is the writer’s journey to explore the human heart and in doing so, you have the pleasure of discovering more about your own heart and revealing your insights through characters. It is this fundamental sharing between writer and reader—of thought, feeling, and action that gives fiction its power and force.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie, in talking of her dying love for her husband, Jody, says “she wasn’t petal-open anymore with him.” Characters may love, hate, be spiteful with abandon, but a good writer always remains “petal-open.” If you no longer “love” your characters or feel compelled to write about them, then stop. Without love, you are almost certain to write flat, one-dimensional characters.

My Best Advice: Approach your characters as human beings. Make then complex, vulnerable, and imperfect---whether your characters do good or ill or both, readers will recognize them for who they are--reflections of our humanity.

Isn't that why we read--in part, to discover ourselves in fictional mirrors?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Dear Readers,

YELLOW MOON—is born. Every time I write a novel, I wonder whether readers will like my baby. A writer can spend months, years working on a book—be absolutely in love with a project—but it has only a half-life until the connection is made with readers. Sometimes, I wish I could be a fly in the room as readers read my work. While it always bothers me when a reader doesn’t like a particular novel—(I can’t help but feel that I’ve let a reader down!)—I also always reply, “If you don’t like this novel, try another one!”

I pride myself that my books do embrace a range of styles and themes—historical fiction, mystery, magical, spirit-filled tales, religion, womanist affirmations, and a call for peace, racial and ethnic harmony, and, I hope, much, much more. All my stories are written from a wellspring of passion and a belief that words can be both powerful, inspiring, and downright fun.

Just as writers and books are unique, so are all people and their preferred reading tastes. What matters is that we all share a love of stories, and that there are infinite story possibilities that can entertain, engage, and educate us.

I can promise this: for every book I write, I try my best. Every book, I seek to stretch myself as a writer. I am not biased for or against any genre—to me, it is fun to write a literary fiction, a mystery thriller, then, next a memoir about my grandmother who raised me on oral stories and a blend of Christian and African-based spirituality.

I am thrilled that so many people are turning to writing—whether self-published or not, the act of writing can be cathartic, but, most importantly, loving of one-self and of the worldwide community of readers.

Cheers, my friend. In my next blogs, I’ll talk about the writing process. Besides being a novelist, I love teaching creative writing.

Above all things, I love being a woman, a wife, and Mom.