Monday, February 20, 2012

Characters that Stay with You

            There are some books, they can’t be put down.  You close them, you leave them on your bedside table, but the characters get up and follow you through your day, that day, and the next.  This has been my experience with the characters in Gayle Forman’s If I Stay and Where She Went.  I am driving to pick up my daughter from school, I am worrying, and I realize it is about Adam.
            These characters that haunt you through your day, who seem real as living people you know, I want that for the characters in my novel.  They are like that sometimes, but maybe because I am a new writer, they fade into the background as I worry about things like chapters and structure, and the white hot center.  When I return to them for the next round of revisions, I want to think about what kind of attention do I need to give to a draft to invite my characters to this level of existence?

            So I looked back over Where She Went, which I finished last night, breathless.  Here’s what I noticed.

Questions, Questions, Questions:  As I read, I was constantly asking –but will you get back together?  will you be friends?  what about the band, will you go back to it?  what about Bryn?  how will you find yourself in the wreckage?  will the music come alive for you again, what will you write next?  As Sara Zarrdiscusses in Hold on Loosely, Forman lets herself live inside these questions.  She lets herself be present in her characters so she can feel each question as it arises in Adam and the impact in has on him.

Human Things the Characters Notice about Each Other:  There are small, very human, physical details the characters notice about each other, that breathed life into them for me…

…the way she wiped her hand on her skirt in between pieces, the way she cocked her head in time to some invisible orchestra, all gestures that are way too familiar to me

I didn’t really notice her until I saw her not playing.  She was just sitting in one of the soundproof practice booths, her cello resting gently against her knees, her bow poised a few inches above the bridge.  Her eyes were closed and her brow was a little furrowed.  She was so still, it seemed like she’d taken a brief vacation from her body.  And even though she wasn’t moving, even though her eyes were closed, I somehow knew that she was listening to music then, was grabbing the notes from the silence, like a squirrel gathering acorns for winter, before she got down to the business of playing. 

…her cheek still flushed from the night’s performance…

Her hair, long and dark, is down now, swimming damply against her bare shoulders, which are still milky white and covered with the constellation of freckles that I used to kiss.  The scar on her left shoulder, the one that used to be an angry red welt, is silvery pink now.

…the tiniest rebel teardrops…

I run my thumb over the calluses on her thumb and up and down the bony ridge of her knuckles and wrist.

• The Rightness of the Comparisons: Forman’s comparisons are fresh, they help me see in a new way, and they are so clearly the result of a writer listening to the vibe of her characters.

When the lights come up after the concert, I feel drained, lugubrious, as though my blood has been secreted out of me and replaced with tar.

The wind is whipping her hair this way and that so that she looks like some kind of mystical sorceress, beautiful, powerful, and scary at the same time.

It’s like I’m seeing Mia through a prism and she’s mostly the girl I knew but something has changed, the angles are off…

• The Characters Are So Completely in Their Own Bodies:  Adam and Mia live inside real bodies, real bodies that are easy to forget about when you’re focusing on dialogue or plot or theme.  I want to go back and take a whole pass over my manuscript just to let myself be in my characters’ bodies.  Some of my favorite Forman physical moments:

I wander into the back garden for my wake-up smoke.  I pat my pockets, but all I find there is my wallet, my sunglasses, the borrowed iPod, and the usual assortment of guitar picks that always seem to live on me.  I must have left my cigarettes on the bridge.

I have to mentally hold my arm in place to keep the trembling from turning into a jackhammer.

I have that floppy calm that follows a cry.

Physiological Reactions the Characters Create in One Another: Attention is also paid to the reactions Adam and Mia set off in each other.  They’re not all positive, and they’re not all sexual, but I couldn’t resist these:

…I give the scar on her shoulder the slightest of kisses and feel arrows of heat shoot through every part of me.

…kiss her right behind her ear, the way that used to drive her crazy, the way that, judging by the sharp intake of breath and the nails that dig into my side, still does

She runs her hands through my hair and it’s like she electrocuted my scalp –if electrocution felt so good,

• The Interplay between the Characters’ Thoughts and Actual Speech:  So in addition to the physical, Forman gives Adam and Mia an inner life as well.  The tension that arises from the contrast between the wildly goings on inside Adam and what he actually said out loud had my heart pounding and the pages turning faster and faster.

Where did you go?  DO you ever think about me?  You’ve ruined me.  Are you okay?...A calm steals over me as I retreat from myself, pushing me into the background and letting that other person take over…. “Good concert”

Really, Adam, I thought.  Is that all you are going to say?  Don’t do it, don’t!  But I knew I would be doing the same thing.  I felt physical pain as I read this!

Yet Forman goes a step further.  She plays with the thought-speech dynamic to create a connection between Adam and Mia we cannot ignore:

Opposite directions, I think and am surprised when Mia actually says it out loud.  “Opposite directions.”

And then at the end, Adam breaks from his typical thought-speech pattern, making the moment is explosive.

“Really?  Was that how you quit me?”  And just like that, without thinking, without saying it in my head first, without arguing with myself for days, it’s out there.

It’s these things that have a physical reaction going in me as I read.  My husband caught me just after I’d closed the book and asked, “Are you okay?”  He could see it in my flushed cheeks, my breathlessness, my other-worldly stare.  Yes, I think, I’ve never been so okay.  I say, “Gayle Forman is my new hero.” 

I can just see Gayle pausing before she starts to write, her brow furrowed just like Mia, listening for Adam, collecting him.

What characters follow you around?  Share them and the titles and authors with us.  Beyond a certain je ne sais quoi, how do you think the author conjures them?  How do you?


  1. I felt like this after reading Meg Rosoff's brilliant book How I Live Now. I STILL worry about those kids. And they ARE real to me, more real than many real people I know. Very strange and magical how books work.

  2. I know what you mean, Jody. I have a few book that have stayed with me over years --The Time Traveler's Wife, The Last Summer about You and Me. I wonder if this quality is inherent in the book --if many readers would feel this way about a title, or if it's also partially the relationship with the reader.