Create Memorable Characters, Not Caricatures

when writing a character...hemingway

When I trained to become a counselor in Belgium, which seems like a lifetime ago, we were taught to check our emotional baggage at the door for the duration of our sessions. It was recommended we visualize placing a suitcase of our ‘stuff’ high on a shelf in the hope of entering clear-headed and open to receive. We were instructed to create a safe place for our clients, who came from diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and opinions.

I observed body language, tone of voice, mannerisms, and what people choose to share or not to share. I was conscious of not rushing or leading the sessions and found that with patience and time, a trust could be built. Sessions progressed, but only as far as the clients chose to go. It was a privilege to sit with clients and walk by their sides as they took their emotional journeys.

One lightbulb moment came during the writing of my first novel, A DECENT WOMAN–it was important to offer my characters the same courtesy, support, and patient attention I’d offered counseling clients in the past.

With that in mind, I created a brief outline and filled out 3×5 index cards for each character with their physical description, age, their back story, and a bit about their personalities; an in-depth character study. After my editor asked me to rewrite several chapters and add two chapters for clarity, the story changed slightly, and it followed that the characters also changed. It was then I wrote a detailed synopsis.

I followed the same basic technique with my work in progress, THE LAMENTS. I outlined the story and wrote a more detailed study of each character to include their weaknesses, deep fears, strengths, idiosyncrasies, physical ailments, and private goals. I included where they were born, who raised them, a bit about their childhood, and a deeper look into their personality traits. I created unique mannerisms, dislikes, likes, and what makes them tick. All that helped with writing natural dialogue, inner conflicts, and the resolutions if any. And since I’m a visual person, I found photographs from magazines to accompany the physical descriptions of each character and added them to the backs of the 3×5 index cards.

After ten chapters, certainly much earlier than with book one, I wrote a short synopsis and later, an eight-page synopsis that grew to ten pages. A week later, I reworked the outline and believe me, the studies of each character changed the interactions and at times, the story. I gave them a proper life and in my humble opinion, they are fully fleshed, complex, crazy, manipulative, lovable, adorable, and complicated characters. Heroes and heroines of their own private world.

You might think time spent thinking of each character is a waste of writing time, a cock-eyed approach, perhaps? Allow me to expand on this process: creating characters for a work of fiction is a fascinating process. Initially, I might have an idea of who they are, what their jobs are, and what they look like physically, but I don’t know how they’ll react to the other characters in the story, or how they’ll fare in the complicated, complex world I will build for them. Are they strong-willed, jealous-types, or haughty and arrogant, or empathic and kind-hearted? Are they good listeners, deep thinkers, or shallow individuals who can’t be counted on in a pinch? Are they honorable? Do they have deep integrity? A character’s deeper, more personal qualities aren’t always apparent until I begin writing the story. So the digging into a characters’ psyche is done before and during the writing to avoid writing flat, uninteresting characters and stories.

I don’t know about you, but as a reader, I lose interest if the character doesn’t ring “true” or seems too shallow throughout the story. We don’t always know a character well enough at the beginning of a story, and even if we think we’ve got them ‘pegged’ at the start, inevitably, disconcerting, interesting, and confusing facts can develop, which is key to good storytelling. Some facts may be downright distasteful or wonderfully surprising and both can be helpful to the story.

This writing technique tells your characters stories from their unique perspective.

You may have a different technique for creating interesting, memorable characters, and in that case, your comments are appreciated!

Happy writing and reading to you.

Eleanor

ABOUT ELEANOR:

me in ma july 2019

Puerto Rican-born Eleanor Parker Sapia is the author of the multi-award-winning novel, A Decent Woman, published by Winter Goose Publishing. Her best-selling debut novel, set in turn of the century Ponce, Puerto Rico, garnered Second Place for Best Latino Focused Fiction Book, English at the 2017 International Latino Book Award with Latino Literacy Now. The book was awarded an Honorable Mention for Best Historical Fiction, English at the 2016 International Latino Book Awards with Latino Literacy Now. A Decent Woman was selected as a Book of the Month by Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club. Eleanor is featured in the anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses, edited by Mayra Calvani.

A writer, artist, and poet, Eleanor is currently working on her second novel, The Laments, set in 1926 Puerto Rico. When Eleanor is not writing, she tends to her garden, travels, dreams of traveling, and tells herself she will walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time before her hips give out. Eleanor is the mother of two amazing adult children and currently lives in her adopted state of West Virginia.

BUY THE BOOK:

https://amzn.to/2WjgXuC

 

Creative Manifestation: Where Do Ideas Come From?

Creative Manifestation: Where Do Ideas Come From?

If you’re like me, you’d love the opportunity to ask each of your favorite authors where their story ideas came from. Most authors, myself included, are asked the same question by readers at our many book readings and signings. My usual reply, said with a smile is, “Which book and how much time do you have?” The reason is that the creative process was surprisingly different for my first novel, A Decent Woman, and my work in progress called The Laments.

Heads up…I feel a long, rambling blog post coming on this rainy Tuesday in October! This is, after all, a blog about writing, and I am fascinated with ideas and the creative process of writers.

I liken the manifestation of ideas for stories to alchemy–the organic and complicated transformation and mix of ideas into words on a page.

In my experience and from what I’ve gleaned from other authors, ideas come to us in many ways–perhaps as an answer to a nagging question; a personal passion or interest; a curious dream; a story we’ve heard or an article that inspired or horrified us; a synchronistic event; through daydreaming; and sometimes, through random searches on the Internet. I believe coming up with ideas is a combination of our imaginations with heavy doses of curiosity, intuition, and inspiration, a beautiful concoction that at times, can seem divinely orchestrated. But are those ideas truly original or divinely orchestrated?

We all have flashes of ideas throughout our busy days, most of which we tend to ignore, put on a shelf for future examination, or we don’t follow through with the idea for myriad reasons and excuses. The British author Neil Gaiman believes writers and artists are particularly sensitive to the moment their attention lingers on a particular situation or idea. I agree with him. I feel an intriguing idea in my body like a pinch or a poke. It is highlighted in my mind, I draw a mental circle around it. Then the questioning begins, “What’s going on here? Why did this happen? What would happen if…? What happened next? And then? How did she react?” Writers run with an idea. We examine it intimately, up close, out of the box, and then we turn it inside out, which is the fun bit. If we deem the idea worthy of further exploration and thought, that’s when the real fun begins. If we happen to hit a roadblock or a brick wall in our writing, instead of stopping dead in our tracks, we build a creative side road or a detour around the problem with new ideas that will see the story to the end. Writers are persistent and we are in our heads a lot.

“Ideas turn up when you’re doing something else.” – Neil Gaiman

So let me throw in a wrench or at least food for thought about the wonderful world of ideas and thoughts. When I first heard the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle say we don’t own our ideas and thoughts, I scrunched up my nose and my brow furrowed. What? In another interview, he said our ideas come from the collective mind and our thoughts from the Ego. I understood the Ego part and while I loved the idea of a collective mind out there in the ether, I’d always believed my ideas were my own. Then Tolle further confused me by saying our ideas and thoughts are one and the same.

Allow me to share how the idea of my first novel A Decent Woman was birthed. Then I’ll share an experience that helped my understanding of Tolle’s interesting statement of the collective mind. I told you this blog post would be a long one.

A few years after my precious mother’s unexpected death at 57 years of age, my grandmother celebrated her 90th birthday. Despite still grieving for my mother, I decided to gather my memories for a tribute to my grandmother on her milestone birthday. Though I’d never written a tribute, I thought it could be a special gift to leave my children and my family for posterity’s sake. More importantly, it was my wish to show my mother and grandmother how much they meant to me and how much they’d influenced my life. As a child and throughout my life, I’d loved nothing more than sitting at my grandmother’s feet or at the foot of the bed with my mother, listening to their stories of growing up in La Playa de Ponce and later, about their lives in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Both women were superb storytellers, who instinctively knew how to captivate and hold an audience–a true gift.

After reading what I’d come up with, my then-husband asked me to write an outline. I had no idea why and he didn’t explain. By then, I’d been an exhibiting painter for close to 20 years and had written dozens of poems, but I’d never entertained the idea of writing a novel. When I presented him with a basic outline, he told me I had a story to write. I didn’t question a thing. I began to write all the stories I’d heard from my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother despite the pain caused by nostalgia and melancholy for my mother. Granted, there were lots of missing pieces and I needed tons of historical information to fill in the blanks (which looking back, should have daunted me), but I kept writing. I may have been an inexperienced writer, but I had a passion for stories, a love for my family, and for the island of my birth.

At the time, I didn’t understand the enormity of the decision to write a novel and all that it entails, nor had I read a single book on writing (which I believe was a blessing in disguise at that time). I had no fear of creating. I was a self-taught artist. I already knew the creative alchemy necessary to manifest and work ideas onto canvas and paper with watercolor brushes, pastels, and charcoal. Deep in my heart, I believed my story was unique. The longer I sat at the writing desk, idea A led to idea B, which led to idea C, and so on. I followed the general road map of my grandmother’s life and the lives of women she’d known or heard about throughout her life, or I invented characters gleaned from nonfiction or academic books written about life in turn-of-the-century Puerto Rico. When the manuscript started to resemble a book, ideas for descriptions and dialogue poured out. At times, I believed I was taking dictation from the ancestors.

The first draft manuscript was completed in six months. Now, the original manuscript bears little resemblance to the current book, but that’s for another blog. Thank you to my ex-husband for the idea, his encouragement, and for knowing I needed to write a book when it was the furthest thing from my mind.

Fast forward a few years. After I found a publisher for A Decent Woman and the manuscript went into editing, I selected the perfect image for the book cover–the gorgeous painting by Marie Guillemine Benoist called Portrait d’un nègresse, completed in 1800. The portrait, which hangs in the Louvre, depicts a beautiful black woman in a white turban, a tignon, which my heroine wore, as well. I was ecstatic when my publisher approved the image. I saw my heroine Ana Belén Opaku in this unknown woman and felt a strong connection with her. Below is an image of the original book cover.

USE THIS IMAGE OF BOOK COVER (NO NIPPLE! lol!)

A few weeks later, during a quick Google image search of this gorgeous painting, two book covers of novels popped up with the same image–The Book of Night Woman by Jamaican-born Marlon James, published in 2009, and Texaco by the French author Patrick Chamoiseau, who was born in Martinique. His novel was published in 1992. I was stunned. The award-winning books hadn’t come up in my original search. Yes, I was naive to think no one in the world would choose the painting for a book cover, but me! I’d never heard of the authors and had never read their books. (I’ve since read both books and I am now a huge fan of these authors). Of course, I was disappointed by this discovery, but not deterred. I’d seen book covers with similar or exact images reworked in new ways.

I immediately ordered the books. My jaw dropped while reading the first chapter of The Book of Night Women. Like my book, the story begins with a birth. And our heroines have green eyes, both were born into slavery, and they killed their rapists. I raced through the book, which is outstanding, by the way. Thankfully, the story is different from A Decent Woman. The story of Texaco is vastly different and also a wonderful, well-written novel. What a damn relief.

Marlon James The Book of Night Women

Patrick Chamoiseau Texaco

So, Eckhart Tolle was onto something with the collective mind (or whomever he got the idea from!)–our ideas and thoughts come from the collective mind with subtle differences. The story of A Decent Woman bears little resemblance to the novels, The Book of Night Women and Texaco, but we do share a strong connection to our respective Caribbean islands, and it appears the three of us (or their publisher’s art department) saw our main characters in the beautiful woman in the painting hanging in the Louvre.

Ultimately, we scrapped my original book cover and chose a photograph I shot of a statue I own of the Virgin Mary of Monserrat, which I love. A Decent Woman went on to be published three times. Yes, three times with different publishers, and of course, the book enjoyed three distinct book covers, but that’s another story.

Here is the current book cover. My thanks to Winter Goose Publishing for creating this lovely book cover with the image I chose; it meant a lot to me.

A Decent Woman Flat (1)

A special note of thanks to the Universe for not showing me those two award-winning novels until after my writing journey with A Decent Woman. Smile.

Next week, I’ll share a (shorter) blog post about creating memorable characters and using archetypes in stories.

Thank you for your visit!

Eleanor

ABOUT ELEANOR:

ellie

Puerto Rican-born Eleanor Parker Sapia is the author of the multi-award-winning novel, A Decent Woman, published by Winter Goose Publishing. Her best-selling debut novel, set in turn of the century Ponce, Puerto Rico, garnered Second Place for Best Latino Focused Fiction Book, English at the 2017 International Latino Book Award with Latino Literacy Now. The book was awarded an Honorable Mention for Best Historical Fiction, English at the 2016 International Latino Book Awards with Latino Literacy Now. A Decent Woman was selected as a Book of the Month by Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club. Eleanor is featured in the anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses, edited by Mayra Calvani.

A writer, artist, and poet, Eleanor is currently working on her second novel, The Laments, set in 1926 Puerto Rico. When Eleanor is not writing, she tends to her garden, travels, dreams of traveling, and tells herself she will walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time before her hips give out. Eleanor is the mother of two amazing adult children and currently lives in her adopted state of West Virginia.

BUY THE BOOK:

https://amzn.to/2WjgXuC

 

 

On Characters: I Resemble That Remark

How much do characters in novels resemble the writer and the writer’s journey?

Before and after the publication of my novel, ‘A Decent Woman’, I accepted many kind invitations for written interviews to introduce and market the book. One interview question provoked much personal introspection about my character Ana Belén, an Afro-Cuban midwife born into slavery, who lives and works as a midwife at the turn of the nineteenth century in Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico.

The interviewer, a fellow author and good friend, emailed the questions and added a smiley face after this question, “How much do you resemble the character, Ana Belén?” My long-time friend knows me well, so the jig was up. A few weeks later, I sent her my responses, and wrote this next to the smiley face, “I resemble that remark in more ways than I feel comfortable owning up to at this time!”

Of course, the character of Ana is like me, in many ways. How could she not be? I created her and the world she inhabits from my imagination and a few family stories. But. I’m not a statuesque, Afro-Cuban midwife born a slave, living in Puerto Rico at the turn of the nineteenth century. I’m a five-foot-tall, green-eyed, Puerto Rican-born writer, currently living in West Virginia. How much could I possibly have in common with Ana?

As it turns out, we share many common traits: feistiness, courage, bluntness, loyalty, a fierce love of family with a strong commitment to protecting the rights of women and children. Was it in my genetic makeup or life experience (when I was writing the book) to respond and behave in similar ways to threats, happy circumstances, and impossible challenges the way Ana did? No, not in every circumstance. Tough as nails and compassionate Ana is my heroine, but we are all survivors of something. I had a few life experiences to draw upon during the writing.

Along with a few positive traits, I share a couple negative traits with Ana, such as stubbornness, sensitivity to unfair criticism, impulsiveness, and at times, short-sightedness, especially when I think I’m right. In my story, Ana is forging a path in a difficult, new world; a world I was discovering and exploring through writing, research, and my imagination. A bit or a lot of ourselves is bound to emerge in our characters, but it was only after the book was published that I realized how closely related our journeys were and where they overlapped.

For the rest of 2015, I journaled about that question, and like the author of ‘The Artist’s Way’, Julia Cameron says, after the midway point of journaling three pages in longhand, the truth came out: I’d been working through stuff while writing Ana and Serafina’s stories, even the men’s stories, and I hadn’t realized it. Here’s what I discovered.

In 2010, I pulled out the draft manuscript I’d begun in 2005. After two years of a difficult separation and divorce, a few more years of working in an entirely new field, having my heart broken and finally, moving to a new state, I was ready to write again. My world had been continually rocked with so many unknowns that it made my head spin during that time and even now as I think back to what we went through as a family. Between 2006 and 2010, questions plagued me at every turn: What will turning 50 look and feel like? Will we be safe and will I find work? Where will I live? Can I support myself while writing full time, and if not, what the hell will I do to make that happen? Will anyone hire a fifty-year-old woman with an old resume? Should I go back to school and find a new career? Are my kids okay? Will I find love after divorce? Will this book ever be published?

I survived and so did my kids. We’ve grown and flourished where we were planted, but it was a tough road. My kids graduated from college, found good jobs, and in 2011, I bought an old house in West Virginia. At the next fork in the road, I gave up sending out resumes that I knew would never be answered—I would write full time, which was a huge gamble and risk for someone living on a small budget. The decision was made. I sat down to write and soon discovered Ana’s story had to change. I had learned many valuable lessons and developed new skill sets, more than I’d ever dreamed possible, that had enriched my life as a woman and mother. The original Ana was merely a skeleton of the woman she was meant to be; it was time to put meat on those bones. I rewrote the story, worked with two editors and sent out the manuscript. The book was finally published by Booktrope Editions in February 2015.

Ana’s journey of learning to read and write, and moving from La Playa to Ponce when male doctors entered the birthing room for the first time, threatening her livelihood, were born only after I was reborn. It makes perfect sense–I had gone back to school and moved from Virginia to West Virginia. What I did not realize until after the book was published was that Ana embodied everything I’d needed during the difficult years after marital separation and divorce: a protector, a loyal friend, an advocate, a mom. Serafina, the young, motherless widow in the story was me, a motherless child, as my beautiful mother had passed away in 1992, and I missed her terribly. The characters I created, my heroines, mimic and embody the internal and external life struggles I experienced and helped me through a difficult time. All my characters gave me the courage, guts, and tenacity I needed during the writing and publishing journeys, and later with marketing the book, which continues today. I might not have all the answers, but I am leaps and bounds ahead in my journey.

Writing ‘A Decent Woman’ was a journey and as it turns out, a quest toward wholeness. I believe in starting your journey, whatever it might be, from where you are standing, and I believe in paying attention along the way.

Fast forward. I am currently writing a second novel called ‘The Lament of Sister María Inmaculada’, featuring a young Puerto Rican nun, an old Franciscan friar from Spain, and a young Protestant minister sent to Puerto Rico from the United States in 1920. The characters, most definitely from different worlds, find themselves living and trying to work together on a barren islet of La Isla de Cabras, The Island of Goats. It is a challenging, joyful, gut-wrenching, and empowering story to write, set in a new, unknown world to me, and I am loving the process. And I am including male point of view in a story for the first time.

A new, unknown world…is it really?

We shall see. I am excited about what I’ll learn and discover through these new characters, and already, I have discovered something amazing: I didn’t think it was possible to love a new character as much as I love Ana Belén, but I do. Her name is Sister María Inmaculada.

About Eleanor

ellie

Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language family support worker and refugee case worker, continue to inspire her stories.

Eleanor’s debut novel, ‘A Decent Woman, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico, was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club. Eleanor is featured in the anthology, ‘Latina Authors and Their Muses’, edited by Mayra Calvani, and in the soon-to-be released anthology, Organic Coffee, Haphazardly Literary Society, edited by Allie Burke. Eleanor is a proud member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, The National Association of Professional Women, and the Historical Novel Society. She is a contributing writer at Organic Coffee, Haphazardly Literary Society. When not writing, Eleanor loves facilitating creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

Eleanor adores her two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is happily writing her second novel, ‘The Lament of Sister Maria Inmaculada’.

http://www.amazon.com/Decent-Woman-Eleanor-Parker-Sapia-ebook/dp/B00TUP47W

 

 

 

When Is It Okay to Lose Your Sh#t?

I am a writer and watcher of human behavior: odd, interesting, strange, and bizarre behavior do it for me. If you’re a writer and you’re not watching people and taking notes, you should be. Often, we can’t make up the stuff I see or hear, and quite often, I’m left with a dropped jaw and raised eyebrows, but I’m fascinated all the same. Odd mannerisms; interesting turns of phrases; strange or irrational behavior, facial ticks, and expressions; and bizarre conversations or get-ups, make their way into my novels and short stories and make for interesting characters. I like to know what makes people tick. Pay attention; it’s all good stuff for a writer.

Why do people do what they do?

This year, a British author by the name of Richard Brittain tracked down a Scottish girl who’d written a negative review of his self-published novel, and proceeded to crack a bottle of wine on her head.

Here’s how Gawker.com described his actions. “Brittain, incensed at the one-star review, apparently tracked down Rolland’s Facebook page, discovering that she lived in Scotland and worked at an Asda supermarket. He allegedly traveled 500 miles from London and found her at the store, crouching to stock a low shelf of cereal boxes. He hit her from behind with a full bottle of wine, leaving her unconscious and with a gash on her head.”

Wow. The article went on to say that Richard Brittain had received media coverage and the attention he’d probably craved his whole life. I wonder if he’s still writing?

Next up is the bizarre turn of events at the Miss Amazonas 2015 beauty competition. In the YouTube video I watched, the Brazilian beauty pageant first runner-up, Miss Sheislane Hayalla, hugged the winner, Miss Carolina Toledo, and seconds later, Hayalla violently ripped the crown off the newly crowned Miss Amazonas’ head before throwing the crown to the floor and storming off the stage. Damn. Talk about epic public freakouts and losing your shit.

Sheislane Hayalla claimed that her rival, Carolina Toledo, had bought her Miss Amazonas title, and Hayalla cried foul play during several interviews on Brazilian television. Lots of publicity for Miss Hayalla, but it’s not clear if she retained her runner up crown, or whether there was an investigation into the allegation. Frankly, I lost interest.

Have I ever lost my composure and freaked out? Sure, I’m human. One doozy of an outburst was due to erupt just before Christmas Day this year, aimed at my new next-door neighbor, who was in the habit of leaving her dog home alone for hours and hours. And no, she doesn’t work outside the home. The instant this woman left the house to do whatever she was doing, her large Golden Retriever, who suffers from severe and extreme separation anxiety (I don’t know what my neighbor suffers from), immediately began howling and barking for hours on end until her owner returned home. And I mean hours. I tried loud music to drown out the noise (which isn’t conducive to a good writing session), and even tried hunting earplugs, but I could still hear the lonely pup’s pathetic howls. I work from home and was about to lose my mind when my neighbor began leaving the house in the evenings, which is my favorite time to write. I don’t understand how the dog didn’t lose her voice, completely.

Anne Lamott quote about people behaving better to writers

I have a Chihuahua, who luckily isn’t a yappy barker, except when someone knocks at my door, which is normal. If my neighbor’s dog did that, I’d be okay with it, but that’s not the case. For months, I politely voiced my concerns and my neighbor agreed–her dog was a pain in the butt. She admitted she’d heard her dog’s barks down the street as she’d driven away several times. Nice. Later, I wrote two notes asking my neighbor to please do something about her dog’s incessant barking and howling as I couldn’t get any work done. One day she saw me outside and yelled, “Get over it! She barks! Live with it!” Live with it? After several calls to the Department of Animal Control, I discovered there are noise ordinances in my city. A man from Animal Control came out and paid my neighbor a visit. My writing days are peaceful and quiet once again, and I hope it remains that way long into the new year!

It’s hard to know what my neighbor’s problem was with her dog, and why she didn’t seem to care about her neighbor’s frazzled nerves.

when writing a character...hemingway

 

 

 

 

Happy Holidays to you and my best wishes for a wonderful 2016!

About Eleanor

ellie

Puerto Rican novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language family support worker, and a refugee caseworker, inspire her stories. She is a member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, and the Historical Novel Society, and she is a contributing writer for Organic Coffee, Haphazardly Literary Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

A Decent Woman, Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico, was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club, and is listed in Centro Voices, The Center of Puerto Rican Studies, ‘Essential Boricua Reading for the 2015 Holiday Season’. Book clubs across the United States have enjoyed A Decent Woman. Eleanor is featured in the newly published anthology, ‘Latina Authors and Their Muses’, edited by Mayra Calvani. Eleanor is the mother of two wonderful adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is writing her second novel and a collection of short stories.

http://amzn.to/1kzKdGq

Who’s Telling This Story and Other Questions

I named my author blog, The Writing Life, for good reason–I love writing about my writing journey with its’ challenges, joys, and the confusing world of writing, marketing and publishing. Yes, the writing life can be confusing, and last week, I was confused in a big way with my second book, my work-in-progress.

These are the type of questions that kept coming to mind. Perhaps you can relate to the writerly predicament I found myself in.

What should you do when your protagonist and secondary character begin vying for first place in a story–the protagonist seat–and you’re swaying toward the secondary character? And then back to the main character you’ve chosen. Do you stick with your initial storyline, keeping it as is or do you take this new development seriously? You’ve already worked so hard on the story, dear writer. The manuscript might be finished, or you might be a third of the way through, but still!

Should your characters switch places, which will undoubtedly mean a rewrite and most probably, a bit more research, or do you stubbornly hold your ground in favor of the original story? You know this character musical chairs game will mean a lot more work on your part. Is this a wise move worthy of the time you’ve already spent on the story?

YES! Take the nagging feelings seriously. Here’s what happened to me last week.

I’d written nearly twenty chapters of my work-in-progress when my muse whispered, “Whose story is this?” I quickly recognized the situation. Oh, no. After I finished my very first manuscript in 2006, the second leading lady, ‘spoke’ loud and clear–clear enough for me to stop and take her seriously. I couldn’t deny she’d become the more interesting character to write as she was a feisty, wise, complicated older woman with a mysterious, tumultuous past versus a beautiful, young widow and mother with limited life experience.

Despite realizing the enormity of the task ahead–rewriting my story and adding new chapters–I forged ahead. It was the right move for me. Yes, it required many months of rewrites and writing new chapters, but I listened to my characters and my inner voice, who pointed to Ana, my secondary character. She’d been the leading lady all along, with Serafina playing the role of Ana’s long-time, loyal friend and supporter.

This past weekend, I gave this recurring theme (and nagging thoughts) a good long look. I’d outlined book #2; thought the storyline out from beginning to end; I’d done a substantial amount of research; I understand my characters and their roles in the story; and I have a good story with unique, complex characters in a unique and complex setting. Okay, done. I was very pleased with the story and felt pretty confident in my main character’s ability to pull the story off. Yet I still had a nagging suspicion that wouldn’t let go–the supporting lady, also called the supporting protagonist, was speaking louder than the protagonist–was it her story? Are you kidding me? Again? All that writing and research down the drain!

Each character is important and integral to the story. I had to remind myself:

The protagonist is the main character and the principal figure in a literary work. It is her story to tell because it’s about her and her goal. The secondary characters must be chosen carefully and should contribute to the story and support the protagonist in her goal. The antagonist is equally as important as the protagonist as she will go against the protagonist at every step, causing the leading lady to act, suffer, make mistakes, work things out (or not), and help move the story forward. If a minor character doesn’t support the protagonist, it might be necessary to cut them from the story.

Then, I wrote to my mentor, master-storyteller Jack Remick, who graciously responded to my email full of confusion. He replied, “It’s good to be in chaos at this stage of the story. The first question, of course, is: whose story is it? Keep going. You’ll solve the problems now that you’re worried about them.” He was right. It was a great reminder. I’d lost the plot with so many characters in my head! (Check out Jack and Bob’s superb writing blog – bobandjackswritingblog.com)

So, the former protagonist in my WIP will have her own book down the line. Her story is already firm in my mind, and I’ve done most of the research. I’ve put her aside for now. Who did I choose as my leading lady for book #2? The secondary character. She is complex and vulnerable, intelligent and clueless, and at times, she’s haughty. She is perfectly flawed.

I immediately felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders when I’d decided. Once again, I’m writing with a huge smile on my face. It’s going to be an awesome story, now that I know whose story it is to tell. I think the former protagonist is somewhat relieved, as she was out of her element in this particular story. She was just waiting for me to realize what she already knew. Yes, writers speak to their characters and they answer us!

Sometimes you must get completely lost, almost in a state of chaos, to find your way. Writing good stories is like that: one foot in front of another, paying attention to the shady detours and dark corners which just might lead you to Shangri-La.

Happy writing to you!

About Eleanor Parker Sapia

 

elliePuerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language social worker and a refugee case worker inspire her stories. She is a member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, and Historical Novel Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

A Decent Woman is Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico. The book was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends Latino Book Club, and book clubs in many states have enjoyed the book. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is happily writing her second novel, The Island of Goats.