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What Was That Phrase About Authenticity?


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Beth-Havey-Newsprint-pic-860.jpg?resize=While writing, are you worried about phrases like authenticity, loose ends?

If SO, ASK YOURSELF: WHERE SHOULD EACH OF MY CHARACTERS END UP?

Writing a novel is about communication. Outside of creating fascinating characters, a gripping plot, or filling pages with beautiful, engaging language, a novel should be clear in its purpose, its presentation and especially its ending.

In a recent review of Jennifer Haigh’s A Matter of Choice, author and critic Richard Russo not only wrote insightful comments about this excellent work of fiction, he also provided some creative insight for the rest of us.

Russo wrote: “At this point in a rave review, critics will sometimes introduce a quibble to prove that they’re tough-minded and serious and not easily gob-smacked.”

He then presents an authorial problem: do writers sometimes interfere with the lives of their characters, a kind of artifice at work? He writes: “But I’d argue the opposite: that it’s the characters themselves who have been working overtime their entire lives, to arrive where they land.”

His point becomes a fascinating way to praise a writer: stating that Haigh isn’t manipulating her characters, but rather paying close attention to their choices, bringing those choices to the page. When concluding his reading of the novel, and then his review, Russo writes that he was gob-smacked, because down to specific details, each of Haigh’s characters had changed during the novel, had revealed their true selves. Haigh had not left readers asking: why was that character even presented, what purpose did he or she have, or what was that character’s message?

FORMING A PLAN

After reading that final line of Russo’s review, I grabbed a pen, and in the margins of the piece, wrote down the names of all the characters in my WIP.

Had I given each of them the power to identify their needs, admit their mistakes? Had I clarified their positive actions and decisions? Was all of that on the page, or was I leaving too much to interpretation? By the end of the novel, had I made it clear where each of their lives stood?

Every character in your novel counts. Each has a voice contributing to the chorus of the story. At the end, where do you see each of them? How are they to live when the novel ends? It’s impossible to leave them hanging, because each character affects the overall story. Their part in the rise and fall of your story’s line and action has to have a satisfying ending.

In one of his workshops, Donald Maass addresses the issue of creating a character, but also never abandoning that character.

“Characters don’t arrive as blank slates. Indeed, in our back story worshiping literary era, there is hardly a character we meet who does not already carry a wound, a burden, or arrive in a state of paralysis. In some novels, recovery is not the end result, but instead the entire body and point of the story…more generally though, characters are people who are explained by their psychology.”

I agree, though I think within the creative process, characters often spring to life without regards to their psychology. It is something we begin to consider as they grow on the page, inhabit the list of character attributes Maass provided: values, dark fears, public face. And let me add: past wounds, mistakes, losses, fears.

Mr. Maass also stresses: fiction needs to make sense in a way real life does not. When you really focus on that sentence, it is comforting as well as invigorating. Writing about some real lives would put our readers to sleep!

THE BEGINNING: Some Goals  

In many ways, beginnings are the hardest part of a novel’s creation. Your characters walk on stage, conflicted…a dark past, a decision to make, a past torturous mistake, a memory, a goal. But the tension from this mistake must increase and drive the story forward.

Lewis Carrol: I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.

As writers, we pull from our experience, and though our fiction is not biography, it can spring from personal experience, the interpretation of that experience. Our work is affected by all we have taken in through media, other people, past memories. My three novels (unpublished) pull from the time I was an RN, working in the maternity unit of an inner-city Chicago hospital: so yes, loveable and difficult characters, intense experiences, life and death.

But whatever background you feature in your novel: city or country; America or outside the United States—your characters arrive on the page with your real-life experiences. They mirror your successes and sorrows—as well as the news media and books you’ve read, the films and theatre you’ve experienced, the conversations in your household, office, zoom meetings. It means that while you write draft and after draft, your fiction needs to make sense, your characters must have real lives…reading your fiction should feel like reading truth.

Thus when Haigh writes, Most pharmacies in Massachusetts dispensed emergency contraception without a prescription. The morning-after pill could be taken within five days of unprotected sex… though it’s a novel, we know we are in capable writer-hands.

THE MIDDLE: Increasing Tension, Changing Goals

Now we have pages of story, as well as expanding, changing story goals: problems increasing, secrets building, more characters entering to flesh out the initial plot idea (the murder, the cheating lover, the escalating war, the MC nearer to death, the revelation of the criminal). Just spit-balling here, while you, the writer, should be constantly asking: how does this information change or affect the goals of my major characters, the pathway of my story?

Thus, we are now in The Middle. The story line is darting off into different directions. And you, the writer, while allowing this, must at the same time control how your characters react and change; how the story threads become more dramatic and confusing. You do all of this while thinking about the ending, one that will be reasonable, logical, one that will utilize your expanding story lines, your imagery, and also answer questions, create a climax and bring everything back to a reasonable, acceptable ending. WOW!

That’s your challenge, IF YOU WANT A REVIEWER LIKE RUSSO to be gob-smacked. It’s also a logical process. We must listen to our characters, try to understand their choices, both large and small. As Russo writes, that’s not artifice, it’s art.

We have met Claudia Birch who works at a woman’s health clinic on Mercy Street in Boston.

“She spent most of her days in the call center, fielding phone calls, training and managing the volunteers. Several times a week, she counseled Access patient in person. There were Abs with special circumstances: minors who needed parent consent; women with medical conditions that made terminating more complicated; latecomers who’d missed the legal cutoff, of were about to.”

Claudia thought of the protestors gathered on Mercy Street: the churchgoing faithful, the celibate priests and monks. Would they have any interest in Shannon F.—a homeless addict who haunted the brick sidewalks of Downtown Crossing, harassing tourists for spare change—if she weren’t pregnant? Preventing her abortion was all they cared about. The bleak struggle of her life—the stark daily realities that made motherhood impossible—didn’t trouble them at all.

In Haigh’s middle, we also meet Victor. Haigh writes: For decades, now, the White female had defied nature, fighting her destiny with every weapon possible: swallowing pills, injecting herself with hormones…

The depravity was breathtaking. The depravity, truly, was hard to fathom…The White female was drunk with power. She was holding an entire race hostage. In the interests of humanity, an intervention was necessary. It was a matter of survival. The female body was a natural resource, like coal or iron. It belonged to the entire world.

Haigh is taking the reader more deeply into story: Victor’s depravity increasing, always parallel to Claudia’s struggle with a past that has colored all of her present choices. The plot builds, Haigh revealing more of her character’s weaknesses and blind choices that will build to a crescendo.    

THE END: How Each Character Fulfils Their Story Goal

In A Matter of Choice, Jennifer Haigh presents many POV of characters throughout the novel. As the book ends, we see each of them one last time, see them living out their own individual goals and plot lines, revealing what drives them, why some of them make sordid, evil choices. This is the what Russo admires in the novel—each character has agency; we watch each of them fulfilling or failing to achieve their goals. It is one of a writer’s hardest challenges, when writing a novel.

Haigh writes: Victor still mourned the White race, the once-great tribe now disgraced and diminished…He lay on the couch and watched television…westerns twenty-four seven…The stories were as familiar as the sky above. It was easy enough to fill in what wasn’t there…That America was gone now, lost forever, but Victor sill had its embers—available to him day and night through the magic of satellites, beamed down from heave to the disc on his roof.

So when you sit down to rework some of your pages, rethink whether your characters have simply drifted away or that you have honored them, referred to their roles in your story’s ending…I am able to again use Detective Langley, who while writing his report near the end of the novel, clears up some story threads without my having to devote pages to each of them. And a final hospital scene allows me to bring major characters together: questions are answered, bonds are broken or solidified, all in the hope of leaving my readers satisfied.

Richard Russo: At this point in a rave review, critics will sometimes introduce a quibble to prove that they’re tough-minded and serious and not easily gobsmacked, so I’ll offer here that some readers may be disappointed that so many of the characters in “Mercy Street” get precisely what’s coming to them. They may suspect authorial — what? interference? artifice? — at work. But I’d argue the opposite: that it’s the characters themselves who have been working overtime, their entire lives, to arrive where they land. Haigh isn’t manipulating them, just paying close attention to their choices, large and small. That’s not artifice, it’s art. And I was gobsmacked.

What gives your work, your characters, authenticity? Do you hope to leave readers gobsmacked? 

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About Beth Havey

A former teacher of English and a labor and delivery RN, Beth Havey attended the Iowa Summer Writing Workshops, working with David Payne and Elizabeth Strout. From 2004-2008, she proofread for Meredith Books and co-authored Miami Ink: Marked for Greatness. In 2015, Foreverland Press published her story collection, A Mother’s Time Capsule. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Better Homes & Gardens, the Des Moines Register, The Nebraska Review and other literary and little magazines. Each week she publishes an essay on her blog, and is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

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