July 10, 2007

Memorable people on the page

AThe other day as I finished reading Zadie Smith’s novel, On Beauty, I could feel one of the main characters, Kiki, take up residence in my head. She’s in there right next to Elizabeth Bennett, Scarlett O’Hara, the Wife of Bath, and Charlotte (yes, the writer and web-spinner).

Certainly one of the greatest pleasures of reading is meeting people who are memorable, despite being fictional. What makes them so real for us? I asked novelist Margot Livesey, herself the creator of people who tend to live with readers long after the final page of Banishing Verona, Eva moves the Furniture, The Missing World, or her other novels or short stories.

“I think a lot about character,” says Livesey, who recalls growing up under the spell of the great 19th century characters like Heathcliff and Jane Eyre. “One of the reasons I love to write fiction is that it gives me a different way of looking at the world. I might find myself thinking, ‘Verona wouldn’t like that.’

This day, as we sit in her living room, surrounded by paintings by her husband, artist Eric Garnick, we talk about how a story’s characters can be so real that a reader can identify across lines of gender, race, age, and other details.

Livesey says, “It’s a mixture of craft and luck. I know things I can do, the telling detail, to put a character on the page.”

We talk, too, about how part of the “real-ness” has to be the all too human presence of flaws. Livesey points to Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog as such a story.

“The fact that Chekhov describes his two characters with such confidence, presenting their strengths and weaknesses, their virtues and vices so openly--there is something very persuasive about that. We don’t want our characters to be so saintly. We respond to characters that have flaws. We empathize with their struggle. Many of the great memorable characters are on some kind of journey, large or small. That seems to elicit our sympathy.

“With that kind of well-drawn character, we feel their physical presence, we get a sense of their voice, their language. We watch our own lives and our friends’ lives unfold and we see how people talk in real life. It’s a slow process. Fiction changes the nature of time.”

According to Livesey, watching fictional characters over time gives us a chance to learn about them, get to know them, understand them, even develop expectations about how they will behave.

Livesey’s own stories tend to start with an occasion--someone finding an abandoned baby, as in Criminals, or sustaining a memory-erasing accident, as in The Missing World. Next, she says, she needs to look for a character to inhabit that situation and to figure out where the story is going. -then what she calls a period of negotiation: maybe a character has become too likable or too unlikable.

“I usually have a destination in mind,” she says. With Criminals, for example, she wanted the story to end with a Solomon-like judgment; with Banishing Verona, she was interested in exploring an unlikely love story.

Talking with Livesey, I am glad to learn it is not only readers who miss the characters when the last page is finished. She tells me about procrastinating a little before writing the final chapter of Banishing Verona
“I loved being in (the characters’) company and I knew that when I was done, my relationship with them would change.”

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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

My photo on the home page is by Peter Urban.
The cover of my book, Afterwords, was designed by Kate Misail.
The painting on the cover of the book, which is also pictured on this page, is by Eric Sealine.

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