What a Character!

typewriter, writing

(photo: c1.staticflickr.com)

This guest post by writer Robert Hebditch is excerpted from a workshop he recently conducted on developing characters for fiction. I’ve added a few examples in italics.

My way of creating character is pretty wasteful and I don’t recommend it to anyone, particularly beginners. My method leads to a lot of re-writes, restarts and a lot of cut and pasting. I often end up throwing it all away. But maybe some pieces of it will work for you!

Following Flannery O’Connor’s famous dictum that you’ve gotta “Write it down, then see what you’ve got,” I tend to write my ideas for the story first, maybe including vaguely defined characters. Then I start writing, fleshing out the characters as each new situation demands.

I draw on my own experience more than any other source. In a lifetime we are exposed to an awful lot of people—friends, lovers, neighbors, people on the street, at the club, at social gatherings, and yes, even in libraries. Most of us already know many more character types than we can invent. I take bits and pieces from these different sources and lace them together with a strong dose of imagination.

Experienced writer or not, asking yourself questions about your characters is certainly necessary, but there’s no need to have all the answers before you start. For me, the old journalistic maxim “Who, what, when, where, how and why” works well. You can selectively apply this where the situation dictates until you’ve filled out your character sufficiently to fulfill the demands of the story.

Ten Basic Points in Developing Characters in Fiction

  1. A character, especially a main character, should be “believably real,” so that the reader will suspend disbelief (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817).
  2. Some information about how characters look, and not just significant physical attributes, like body type and face, scars, tattoos, but also how they walk, dance, run or scratch their face.
  3. Robert pointed out that a great many contemporary writers prefer not to provide much physical description, following Stephen King’s advice to let the readers supply it. “If I describe mine, it freezes out yours,” King says.
  4. Similarly, Ian Rankin, in Knots and Crosses, also prefers to leave the physical appearance of his main character to the reader’s imagination. Detective John Rebus is described as having “brown hair and green eyes, like his brother.” And that’s it.
  5. What characters say, how they say it, how their speech differs from other characters, and whom they talk to. Also, what other characters say about them—a device that works best when it reveals as much about the observer as the observed. Because Robert’s insight about observer and observed  prepared me to appreciate it, I found this perfect example, in which a son is talking about his tyrannical father: “My mom had to lay [my homework] out for him next to his breakfast plate, to the left of the juice but not touching the fork, so he could scan through it with those gray eyes of his, searching for mistakes, tapping his long finger against the papers like a clock-tick.” From those few lines, you know the father’s horrible and mom and son are terrified. (from The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott). “To the left of the juice but not touching the fork”—brilliant!
  6. What characters do (their actions.) This is the key element, of course, because this is how they move through the plot.
  7. How characters act, which can be at odds with what they do, sometimes helping to create mystery or tension. For example, a man whose appearance is quiet and calm may suddenly reveal his true self by a violent action, such as knocking someone’s teeth out or kicking a cat.
  8. How character live—where they live, where they go, their history and habits, friends, relatives, work associates, hangouts and whom they hang out with.
  9. How and what they feel—emotions, moods and perceptions. At the extreme, writers have shown the emotions and perceptions of people who are insane—think of Chief Bromden’s belief in the black machinery behind the walls in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Or cognitively impaired Benjy Compson’s stream of consciousness in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Or Dr. Jennifer White, narrator of Alice LaPlante’s masterful murder mystery Turn of Mind, who suffers from progressive dementia.
  10. Minor characters are not unimportant characters. They should always serve the story by helping the protagonist move through the plot in some way, no matter how small. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the little we know about the man Thursby is from the established liar Brigid O’Shaughnessy. He makes no real appearance in the novel, yet without his death early on, the whole mystery of the black bird could not unfold.

A final thought. There are so many ways to create character and no one way is the right way. What works for us is what we must go with, with the proviso that there is always something new to learn. What matters most is how our characters make a good story better.

Guest poster Robert Hebditch is a writer of short stories, a local author and is published in US 1, The Kelsey Review and Genesis. He is a member of Princeton Public Library Writers Room and Room at the Table writing groups and a retired staff member of Princeton University.


***Madame Bovary: Provincial Ways

Madame Bovary

(graphic: wikimedia)

I’m envious of the women in my book group who are native French speakers and able to read Gustave Flaubert’s classic in its original language. I read the 2010 English translation by noted American short story writer and essayist Lydia Davis, one of the 19 produced since the book’s 1856 publication. Her intent, she has said, was “to do what I think hasn’t been done, which is to create a well-written translation that’s also very close, very faithful to the French.” Here is a Julian Barnes essay comparing notable translations, including Davis’s, across the generations. If you want to read Madame Bovary, I suggest at least skimming Barnes’s essay to  find a translation suited to your reading preferences.

The novel is a period piece, set in a particular, rather dreary locale, and not all periods and settings wear as well in terms of interest over 160 years. When Madame Bovary was published, the government said the novel was a danger to morality and religion and put Flaubert and his publisher on trial, though they were acquitted. However, in general, “provincial French woman has affairs with doltish men” is no longer a riveting or scandalous storyline, and “spends more than she should” is the modern way of life. Likewise, the beliefs and foibles Flaubert pokes fun at (conventional and bourgeois views, including religion, chief among them) are of varying relevance today. In an Introduction Davis quotes Nabokov’s view that, in Madame Bovary, “the ironic and the pathetic are beautifully intertwined,” and it is those sly revelations about society and how people move in it, rather than plot, that give the modern reader the greatest satisfaction.

Reader tastes have changed not just with regard to content, but regarding style, too, and a book about that same period written today would be very different from Flaubert’s approach. One consequence of what now seems a rather disordered style is that Madame’s character never quite came into focus for me. She is motivated by the ill-considered whims of a moment, a pliant object for the men around her, and rarely self-actuated until of course the end. It turns out, as Barnes notes in his essay, that translator Davis doesn’t actually much like her, or the book. Interesting.

As an exemplar of realist fiction, Madame Bovary was a path breaking book. Unlike most novels that came before, it didn’t romanticize (in the literary sense) or try to draw moral lessons—the lessons were clear from the book’s events and their consequences. Flaubert’s intention was to make the novel not just not “romantic,” but anti-romantic, in that Madame’s susceptibility to and pursuit of romanticism and shallow gratification are what cause her downfall. Occasionally, thought, the authorial voice does make a judgment in the nature of a delicious truism, for example: (about the lovers) “She was as weary of him as he was tired of her. Emma was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.”

Translator Davis in an introduction says this novel’s “radical nature is paradoxically difficult for us to see: its approach is familiar to us for the very reason that Madame Bovary permanently changed the way novels were written thereafter.”

Literary Duds & Decor for Halloween

Halloween is just another opportunity to strut your literary predilections. Here’s a roundup of clever ideas that have crossed my desk this month.

pumpkin, book art

(photo: Topeka Library, creative commons license)

  • Turn books into Halloween art pieces – pulp fiction, 3-D constructions, collage, bent, torn, printed on—books can do more than sit on shelves
  • Jack o’ lanterns for readers – more Maurice Sendak than Jane Austen, but still . . . you know where the wild things are, and so will the neighbors!
  • Easy-to-challenging costumes – is the need “to die your hair” a bit too Freudian a slip? And for the Lizbeth Salander costume, find someone delicious to draw that dragon on your back!
  • Then check to see whether your costume idea is being overdone in your area with Google’s Frightgeist!
  • Miss Havisham

    “Did you hear that?” asks Miss Havisham.

    It may be more practical to look to short stories for costume inspiration (fewer people have probably read them)

  • But if you’d rather focus your creativity on writing, here’s a list of horror fiction ideas straight from recent news headlines – I have dibs on “Important Ohio bridge infested with thousands of spiders”
  • And a little of everything in this gallery of “literary Halloween” ideas. Love the “Nevermore” wreath.
  • Wearing your best Victorian garb, propping your foot on a pumpkin cushion, settle back to enjoy a “Hyde potion.” Bloody good cocktail, that.

(Thanks to Book Riot, Electric Literature, Pinterest, and HGTV for the inspiration!)

****The Financial Expert

India, dawn, village

(photo: Mario Lapid, creative commons license)

By R. K. Narayan (1906-2001)– A friend brought me this book from a trip to India, where the acclaimed author is well appreciated for his classic tales. They combine a deceptively simple narrative style and acute perceptions of human nature in all its absurdity and poignancy. Graham Greene was an early Narayan admirer and helped bring his work to attention in the West.

In this novella, the hero, Margayya, although indubitably Indian, also is “a type which should have taken its place long ago in world literature because he exists everywhere.” Margayya, whose name means “the one who showed the way,” indeed does show the way, although his ultimate destination is not what he hopes or has planned. His story begins in his early career, sitting daily underneath a banyan tree at the center of his dusty village with his small box of forms and pens, helping peasants sort their finances, brokering loans, and earning barely enough to keep his wife and adored son, Balu, in food.

Over the course of the book, his financial prospects greatly improve, Balu grows up, and Margayya rises to great heights on the back of his miraculous financial innovation that the reader recognizes as, essentially, a Ponzi scheme. But ungrateful Balu proves Margayya’s undoing, and the lesson stretches beyond the financial calamity it produces: “The only element that kept people from being terrified of each other was trust—the moment it was lost, people became nightmares to each other.”

As the plot winds toward the inevitable, Margayya’s vanities, his obliviousness disguised as business acumen, and the jockeying for advantage of everyone around him—in an economic environment where so little advantage is to be had—provides ample fodder for  the kind of laugh-at-ourselves “humour that knows no national boundaries,” says Der Kurier, Berlin, also the source of the earlier quote.

The story takes place in the mid-1920s to 1940s, when colonial rule in India was drawing to a close and the country’s legendary legacy of bureaucracy was increasingly entrenched. This exchange between two of Margayya’s acquaintances sums up the incessant frustrations:

The first man is commenting on his difficulties getting a nuisance business moved somewhere else: “. . . you know what our municipalities are!”

Second man in an aside to Margayya: “He is himself a municipal councillor for this ward . . . and yet he finds so much difficulty in getting anything done. He had such trouble to get that vacant plot for himself—”

First man: “I applied for it like any other citizen. Being a municipal councillor doesn’t mean that I should forgo the ordinary rights and privileges of a citizen.”

Well said. I laughed out loud.

In the introduction to another of his books, Narayan says that in India “the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story,” and in Margayya he has selected an unforgettable protagonist and packed his tale with humanity.

Deadly Ink: Pros vs. Amateurs

scissors, blood, editing

(photo: Guzmán Lozano, creative commons license)

The annual Deadly Ink mystery writers’ conference last weekend included an array of “howdunit” panels for authors to discuss their craft. The “pros versus amateurs” panel had a lively discussion of the choice of protagonist and the flaws their creators give them.

A professional (police detective, private investigator, FBI agent, Harry Bosch) can do many things and get information that an amateur (a victim’s family member, the nosy neighbor, Miss Marple) cannot—and vice-versa. News reporters are in a somewhat intermediary position; they can get more information and have access to more sources than an amateur, but they still don’t have access to everything and may have to rely on the good will of the professionals to feed them vital clues. In general, non-professional investigators are much more likely to break the law in obtaining information than police detectives, who are thinking ahead to building a prosecutable case. They don’t want their evidence thrown out of court because their methods were improper. Private investigators who stray from the law risk having their license yanked. Of course, it’s when they do stray that things get interesting!

The idea of the lone investigator is strong in fiction, if not in real life, but amateurs often need to cajole the help of someone “on the inside.” If that amateur is a woman, when the case comes down to a confrontation with the baddies, “she has to end up doing the heavy lifting,” said panel moderator Jane Cleland.

The five panelists well illustrated the potential range of mystery-solving sleuths. Cleland’s New Hampshire protagonist is antiques appraiser Josie Prescott, whose profession (in nine books so far) brings her into contact with some pretty high-priced goods—the series has been called “the Antiques Roadshow for mystery fans.” I picked up her Blood Rubies about a fake—or is it?—Faberge egg.

When the authors were asked for a single word to describe their protagonists, what resulted was an impressive number of synonyms for “stubborn.” Here’s what else they had to say about their principals.

R.G. Belsky – Belsky is a former managing editor of the New York Daily News and metropolitan editor of the New York Post. It’s a natural that his series—three books so far—features prickly, big-mouthed reporter Gil Malloy, whose overriding motive in any situation is to get the story. Belsky says what was important to him was to have a character who operates out of a strong moral base. The most recent book in this series—“a personal ride through the investigative process of journalism” is Shooting for the Stars, probing the cracks in the closed-case murder of a Hollywood actress.

Sheila York writes historical mysteries set in Hollywood’s post-World War II Golden Age, and her protagonist is screenwriter, now reduced to script-doctor Lauren Atwill. Researching her scripts has given Atwill a plausible opportunity to acquire specialized knowledge—lockpicking, for example—which, well, why have a skill if you don’t use it? In a city where gossip reigns, poor Lauren is acquiring a reputation for having bodies turn up wherever she goes. In No Broken Hearts, fourth in the series, events soon make her wonder if these rumors about her are true.

Tim Hall writes “new adult” fiction (no hard-core violence), humor-filled mysteries set on Long Island and featuring Bert Shambles, whose name, Hall explains, “says it all.” He has a past brush with the law that requires him to stay employed, but he’s a bit of a ditz, a laid-back twenty-three-year-old thrift shop employee whose motto might be “If at first you don’t succeed, why bother?” Unfortunately, in addition to his brilliant career, Shambles also has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hall has two mysteries in this series. The most recent is Tie Died.

Annette Dashofy writes traditional mysteries whose main character, Zoe Chambers, is a female paramedic and deputy coroner in a rural Pennsylvania township where the main coroner takes the juicy cases and she deals with the leftovers. And yet . . . She teams up with the police chief when she needs a professional hand, but she’ll need a different kind of help to get over her biggest obstacle to advancement in her field: autopsies make her ill. The first in the series, Circle of Influence, was an Agatha Award nominee for Best First Novel; third and most recent is Bridges Burned, in which Zoe takes in the victims of an accidental fire as suspicions of murder flare up.

Kathryn Johnson is the author of two current series, including the contemporary romantic-

suspense series “Affairs of State,” whose third title, No Mercy, is coming soon. Her historical thrillers each feature one of Queen Victoria’s five daughters. The most recent is The Shadow Princess, about the oldest, Vicky. When her husband, briefly the emperor of Germany, dies, the novel has Vicky returning to London just as the Jack the Ripper terror grips the city. Crown Prince Eddy is a suspect, and she is determined to clear his name. The “princess” books are written under the pen name Mary Hart Perry. As protagonists, Victoria’s daughters can command quite a bit of assistance and are used to getting what they ask for; at the same time, their work is more difficult because they are so famous. (Writers also may be interested in Johnson’s latest book: The Extreme Novelist: The No-Time-To-Write Method for Drafting Your Novel in 8 Weeks.)

***The Storm Murders

farm, snow, winter

(photo: M Pincus, creative commons license)

By John Farrow – Farrow is the pen name that acclaimed Canadian writer Trevor Ferguson selected when he decided to try his hand at writing genre fiction, and, if I have this right, this is his fourth book featuring detective Émile Cinq-Mars and the first of a planned “storm murders” trilogy.

In this mystery/thriller, prickly retired Montreal Sergeant-Detective Cinq-Mars finds himself flattered and cajoled and inevitably drawn into helping in the investigation of a rural Quebec double-murder that culminated in the additional slaying of two young Sûreté du Québec police officers lured to the remote farmhouse by a phone call.

Perhaps Cinq-Mars decides to aid this investigation because he is intrigued by the crime itself, the lack of apparent motive, and the absence of the killer’s footprints in the newly fallen snow around the house. Perhaps it is the puzzling entreaties of a senior FBI agent, looking for answers in a case that’s way out of his jurisdiction. Perhaps it is the bleak persistence of a Canadian winter making the days weigh heavy on Cinq-Mars’s insufficiently occupied brain. Or perhaps it is his wife Sandra’s startling intimation that she might leave him, making the investigation a welcome preoccupation that might enable him to in some way resurrect the man she’d fallen in love with.

The FBI agent, frustratingly close-mouthed, at least reveals that the deaths of the Quebec couple share certain grisly similarities with a series of murders in the United States. All have involved a married couple, always they’ve occurred after a major calamity. As none of the neighbors know much about the couple, relatively new arrivals to the area, and in the hope of finding out more details that would suggest a connection among these deaths, Cinq-Mars travels to New Orleans. The first pair of murders occurred there, shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Sandra accompanies him, because the trip promises to be a semi-vacation. Both she and Cinq-Mars hope a change of marital venue will help them reconnect.

Booklist has called the Cinq-Mars books “the best series in crime fiction today,” and this is the first of them I’ve read. Farrow’s writing style, honed by writing literary fiction, is confident and sophisticated, and the book starts strong. In general, the characters and setting are interesting and well-developed, especially good-humored multi-racial NOPD detective Pascal Dupree and ambitious hotel security chief Everardo Flores, who enliven every scene they’re in. Unfortunately, the plot was not as robust as these other elements. I guessed early on (and I’m not a particularly insightful guesser) why the FBI was interested in this series of murders. Farrow receives praise from some reviewers for writing character-driven mysteries, but for my taste, Cinq-Mars’s examinations of his feelings about religion, his wife, and retirement are rather too long. The denouement also was drawn out past the point of believability, including both conversation and events that seemed unlikely.

While this book has much to recommend it, especially for admirers of the series, in the end it requires some suspension of disbelief.

A slightly longer version of this review appears—along with reviews of many new crime and thriller novels—at the Crime Fiction Lover website.

What I Learned about Book Reviews (from writing them): Part 2

reading, beach

(photo: El Coleccionista de Instantes Fotografía & Video, creative commons license)

Component Parts

When I review a novel or memoir, I look for basic elements of character development, plot, and setting. (“Plot” in memoir is achieved by the selection of life events included.) Lack of believability in any of these undermines my confidence in the story as a whole.

It doesn’t matter whether a book is set in 1800, 2015, or 4500, I look for characters who act and speak believably, certain human psychological patterns held constant. A character from pre-Christian Britain will not think like a hipster living in London today. This other-mindedness is what Lauren Davis achieved so well in Against a Darkening Sky. Even people who are alike in many ways—siblings, even—will not all think and react the same way. Characters need to be individuals, growing organically out of their time and place, with yearnings, weaknesses, and strengths unique to themselves.

Since I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, the plot needs to be tight, too, with all major questions answered. I’d rather have a character admit “we may never know,” if something is truly unknowable within the confines of the story, than think the author led me on with certain plot points or clues, then forgot about them.

An interesting setting—place or time period—is always welcome, but even the most unpromising settings can come alive and in some cases can become almost a character in and of themselves—Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Dickens’s 19th c. London, Hogwarts. These stories could not exist anywhere else.


A writer’s style can add enormously to reading pleasure, and an engaging style can sometimes distract the reader from problems in theme, plot, and characterization. In the end, though, style without substance may feel like the literary equivalent of empty calories, or the movie you enjoy but during the closing credits ask yourself, “what was that, anyway?”

I’m drawn to books with a rather straightforward style typical of the thriller/mystery genre (Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos). But I’m a sucker for an apt metaphor (Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood) and enjoy their liberal use. The key is for the style to match the intent of the book. I’ve read Cormac McCarthy books with a spare—almost barren—style about loneliness in the Southwest desert, and the one I’m reading now (Suttree), set in Knoxville, Tennessee, is florid and looping and filled with unsavory bits, like the river the character lives on.

Cutting Slack

Finally, there’s something to be said for reader expectations. If a novel is by an unknown writer, readers may plunge in with few expectations, and I tend to cut debut authors a little slack. Points—and lots of them—for effort. But if the writer is famous, especially super-star famous, readers rightly have expectations. Which is why, though you couldn’t fault him on plot or style (some reviewers did ding him on character), Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes was a disappointment. It followed a tried-and-true—or should I say tired-and-true—formula. Expertly. But take me somewhere new, please. You’re capable of it.

A Note on Errors

Self-published books, print-on-demand books, small press books, and even books from the Big Houses these days contain more errors than formerly. There aren’t the eagle-eyed copy editors and proofreaders around any more to catch these things. The author had read the manuscript a hundred times–it’s hard to see them and out of the skill set, perhaps. Plus, new kinds of errors crop up thanks to spellcheck and auto-formatting. Occasional typos, changes of font, homonym confusion, and the like I can live with, but beyond a certain frequency, they distract and detract. In my reading experience, blatant carelessness about these “little things” inevitably spills over into fundamental aspects of the work—illogical plot choices, poor character development, tin-ear dialog, hackneyed description.

A recent book I read, by a highly regarded author, included a kidnapping accomplished with a chloroform-soaked handkerchief. Though an staple of old-fashioned movies and television, this method of knocking someone out actually doesn’t work, as I easily found out when fact-checking my own writing. (Yes, fiction does need to be fact-checked!) I had to come up with another method. This author didn’t check. The problem isn’t so much the error itself, the greater problem, again, is losing the reader’s confidence and exposing the fragility of the created world.

Your Criteria?

I’d be interested to know what aspects of a novel or memoir are most important to you. The uproar over Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited payment method, which pays authors based on the number of pages of their book actually read, shows that Amazon and authors alike recognize readers often don’t finish books. What about them fails to hold your interest?

Further Reading

  • “What’s Wrong with Reading Only Half a Book?” by Lincoln Michel for Electric Lit.
  • “Amazon set to pay self-published authors as little as $0.006 per page read,” by Alex Hern for The Guardian, 2 July 2015; the comments are enlightening.
  • Yesterday’s post described my 1-5 star system, the primacy of the reader’s perspective, and some thoughts about the “bottom line.”

Mr. Darcy Revealed?

Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

(drawing: C.E. Brock, 1895, wikipedia)

At last! According to numerous media stories, including this one in The Express of London, British journalist and historian Dr. Susan Law has discovered the real-life model for that Pride and Prejudice heart-throb, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Law says Darcy was patterned after “the intense, charming and often controversial 1st Earl of Morley John Parker.”

According to Law, Austen became acquainted with Parker when she spent time at his home, Saltram House in Plymouth (pictured below), which happened to coincide with her work on P&P. Parker’s second wife, Frances, was one of Austen’s near friends. Frances also had a literary bent and, Law says, initially Austen’s anonymously published novels P&P and Sense and Sensibility were believed to have been written by Frances.

Saltram House, Jane Austen

(artwork: wikipedia)

Coincidentally, Saltram House was used in filming S&S in 1995. It represented “Norland,” the home Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters were forced to leave after Mr. Dashwood died. A scandalous end to John Parker’s first marriage may have inspired the adultery that shakes the family of Mansfield Park, Austen’s third novel.

Law maintains that in five years of research she has found letters and documents that bolster her case. These claims are detailed in her new book, provocatively titled Through The Keyhole: Sex, Scandal And The Secret Life of The Country House (I’m not planning to read and review this one, so I’ve provided the link below now, in case you want to). “The physical similarities in them are obvious,” she says. “The Earl was tall, dark, handsome and slightly brooding.”

Although she’s yet to find that “cast iron bit of evidence,” after spending so much time and effort on her researches, she says, “I am pretty convinced.” I haven’t read her evidence, OK, but I can’t believe the wife of my Mr. Darcy would ever cheat on him.

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Two Days of Theater Bliss!

library, Morgan Library

Morgan Library (photo: Jim Forest, Creative Commons license)

Spent two days in Manhattan this week and highly recommend these highlights. First up was a walk from the train to the Morgan Library (225 Madison Avenue), a treasure-trove of art and the written word, in which lots is always going on. This visit was to see the special exhibit “Lincoln Speaks: Words that Transformed a Nation,” which includes many original documents Lincoln wrote, with helpful context. Take the docent tour.

This exhibit is on view only through June 7, but afterward the library will be putting on “Alice: 150 years of Wonderland” (June 26-October 11). For the first time in 30 years, the British Library will send the original Alice in Wonderland manuscript to New York, and its display will be augmented by original drawings, letters, and other material. Another good reason to visit the Morgan—a terrific café! Order the duck confit salad. I had a Gilded Age Manhattan, which had flakes of gold floating on its surface—irresistible in that fabulous mansion—and needed an afternoon nap.

Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II

In the evening, thrilled beyond words, we saw Helen Mirren in The Audience, where she reprises her role as Queen Elizabeth II. Each week, the monarch has a half-hour private audience with the current Prime Minister, to learn what the government has been up to for the past week and what’s ahead. Mirren’s portrayal of the Queen over the years—from the time of her accession at age 25 to age 89 today—is completely believable. The Queen always backs the government, but that has not always been easy or comfortable. And the government hasn’t always served her well, in terms of candor or protecting her principal leadership interest, the health of the Commonwealth.

If you know or remember anything at all about the dozen political leaders who have served her—from Winston Churchill up through a prickly Margaret Thatcher to today’s David Cameron—you will enjoy these different portrayals. Sets and costumes were perfect. We may think of the Queen is being a bit bland of affect and possibly not as full of terrific one-liners that playwright Peter Morgan gives her (in the first scene, PM John Major confesses, “I only ever wanted to be ordinary,” and the Queen sympathizes: “And in which way do you consider you’ve failed in that ambition?”). But Mirren brings her to well-rounded life, and Morgan even gives her a rationalization for this persona, writing that a monarch’s very ordinariness is what makes for success. Mirren’s line is something like “if we were tremendously creative or brilliant, we’d be tempted to meddle, and that would cause no end of trouble.”

St. Patrick's, cathedral, New York, stained glass

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Wednesday morning, out for a stroll, we found St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the throes of a monumental restoration effort. The exterior where the work has been completed must appear as it did when it was first constructed, with all the grime cleared away from stones and stained glass, and, more important, but invisibly, many structural repairs made. Absolutely beautiful.

Inside, the work continues as well, and the altar is obscured by a mare’s nest of scaffolding. A bit cacophanous, but the completed parts are truly spectacular.

Lunch at my favorite NYC spot, where I’ve eaten so many times, Osteria al Doge at 142 W. 44th Street, a half-block from Times Square. Lovely food and service.

Wolf Hall , playAs if we hadn’t had enough excitement already, off to the Winter Garden Theatre for Part Two of Wolf Hall (Part One reviewed here). I suppose it isn’t too great a spoiler to say that Anne and Cardinal Wolsey’s antagonists get their comeuppance. Though Mark Ryland’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in the tv version seems perfect, Ben Miles is mighty fine in the play, too (a comparison). I enjoyed Hilary Mantel’s books, on which these dramatizations are based, and like both versions. Again, I was struck by the efficiency of the stage play, with its stark set and minimal props, which has a powerful focusing effect.

See The Audience and both parts of Wolf Hall, if you have the chance! But soon. Limited engagements.

White Writing Black Writing White

At my writer’s group this week, we touched on the issues that arise when we try to write a character of a different race (or gender, or and so on). Coincidentally, a thoughtful essay by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda “Where Writers Go Wrong in Imagining the Lives of Others” is included in an early edition of LitHub. (If you’re interested in “the best of the literary Internet,” you may want to sign up for this e-publication, a new joint creation of Grove Atlantic and Electric Literature. It looks promising.)

Rankine and Loffreda explore the difficulties inherent in any effort to imagine the lives of people who have had vastly different life experiences and social conditioning than one’s own. Most of their argument applies to white authors writing about people of color, but could apply to other fundamental differences of the sort that influence not only how people see the world but how the world sees them. (This last point is why stories about people who “pass” are so powerful. They know who they are, but no one else does, and they would be treated very differently if they did.)

Many white writers, the authors say, believe “it is against the nature of art itself to place limits on who or what I can imagine,” as if imagination “is not created by same web and matrix of history and culture” that made the writer. The result is an unconscious racial subjectivity that has the power to wound, to do damage, irrespective of whatever benign motivations the writer may have. There are risks. At the same time, they say, writers of color may pull their punches, unwilling to negotiate territory, develop characters, and explore situations outside whatever conventions the literary establishment endorses.

Nat Turner, slave

Nat Turner captured by Mr. Benjamin Phipps, a local farmer (graphic: en.wikipedia.org)

Writing authentically and deeply even about characters one presumably knows best (people “like me”) is a difficult endeavor. Writers who want to create characters of a vastly different point of view should ask themselves some basic questions, they say: why do I want to write such a character and to what purpose? Not can I and how can I? In other words, is the choice to write this character worth the risk of, essentially, getting it wrong and causing harm? What is needed, they say, is to expand the limits of imagination, even if escaping them is impossible, because “history is not an act of the imagination.” At the same time, as James Baldwin once observed, race is “our common history.”

A Slate article written in response to reviewers’ qualms about Michael Chabon’s 2012 novel Telegraph Avenue (a book I much liked, by the way), offers a somewhat different perspective. Among the book’s principal characters are the proprietors—one black and one white—of a used record store located on “the ragged fault line where the urban plates of Berkeley and Oakland subducted.” Writing a black character in this setting is both appropriate and necessary, enabling an exploration of (among many other issues) the community divide and the shifting forces of gentrification, answering the “why” and “to what purpose” questions posed by Rankine and Loffreda.

The Slate piece, which is by Tanner Colby, reviews the history of this continuing debate, which crested with publication of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, told from the point of view of the eponymous former slave. For some years after the criticisms of Styron, white authors shied away from writing black characters, and Rankine and Loffreda agree that issues of “race” and “racism” frequently become entangled. Colby has a cynical view of such critiques: “If you convince white people that they’re not qualified to tackle race, if you scare them away from the issue, if you give them the slightest excuse to ignore it, they will be more than happy to ignore it. For as long as you’ll let them.”

My takeaway from this is that authors who write across racial/gender/other lines need to be hyperaware of the need to push beyond the limits of their own understanding of the world. I suspect that with practice, identifying one’s blind spots comes easier.