When characters talk back

01 May 2014

Finding a voice for your characters is difficult. Ellen Feldman, author of The Unwitting and Scottsboro, shares the advice she was once given by her editor that changed the way she wrote.

 

Years ago, when I was wrestling with a recalcitrant scene, my then editor suggested that I write it backward. Do you mean like rewinding a film, I asked incredulously. Not the action, he explained, the feelings. He was urging me to let my characters act and react with the opposite emotions from the ones I had chosen for them. The advice saved the scene. It also taught me to listen to my characters rather than manipulate them.

The hardest and most critical task for me when beginning a novel is finding a voice. Early drafts are invariably filled with flatfooted narrators and off key protagonists, most of whom sound entirely too much like me. But once the characters begin to talk back, telling me they won’t do this or are determined to do that no matter what I had intended, the book begins to take on a life of its own.

(When I taught, I always encouraged my students to have an outline, at least in their heads. Without one, they were likely to keep writing themselves into cul de sacs. Then came the caveat. If the finished manuscript adheres too closely to the original outline, you have a dead novel on your hands.)

In the earliest drafts of The Unwitting, the wife Nell came from another background, but as she took voice on the page, she proved to me that she had not been the girl I’d imagined in my early notes, but another, far tougher, creature.

The Unwitting by Ellen Feldman

In the years since my editor gave me that invaluable piece of advice, I have learned not to fight my characters. More than that, I have learned to wait on their decisions. In The Unwitting, both Nell and her husband Charlie face several marital and moral choices. In my younger and more dictatorial days, I would have had their actions neatly mapped out. Now I hang back until the people they have become must confront the predicaments they’ve gotten themselves into. This was especially true of the Leningrad sequence in The Unwitting. I didn’t know what Nell would do until she walked into that hotel room.

This business of living with fictional characters in imagined situations can be dicey. My use of the name Leningrad above is a case in point. For several decades now the city has again been known as St. Petersburg. People look at me oddly when I talk about Leningrad, but Leningrad is where I lived during a good part of the writing of The Unwitting.

In actuality, I write in one of two libraries, the New York Public Library and a smaller subscription library called the New York Society Library. Both have rooms where writers can work as well as store their books, notes, and even sweaters for overly air-conditioned days. (This is, after all, America.) The only sound in these halcyon spaces is of softly tapping keyboards. Occasionally one writer may seem to be staring at another, but he or she is really gazing into an inner realm. No wonder we misperceive the physical world around us and make slips of the tongue.

While I was writing Scottsboro, part of it in the voice of a semi-literate southern girl, I often spoke in a southern dialect, though I was born and raised in the northeastern part of the United States. I once inadvertently told a doctor, who was taking my medical history, that I was ten years older than I am because that was the age of the character I’d been writing that morning. During the gestation of The Unwitting, I occasionally called my husband Charlie. My husband’s name is Stephen. Most men would suspect adultery. My husband lives with a writer. He knew it was only obsession.

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