Monday, April 22, 2013


I’m working on a new manuscript, and I’ve reached the point where I’m starting to worry about my characters’ emotions. 

Emotions are a tough thing to nail down in a book, because often the emotion a character feels is not the emotion that really accounts for her behavior.  This also happens to be true in real life.

I just finished reading a very bizarre fantasy novel, ostensibly for middle-grade readers, but with an overly dense and lavish plot and characters that struck me as flat and uni-dimensional.  The reason the characters never came alive was that (for example) if the protagonist was sad, she said she was (or said she felt as though she was).  It was clear, cut-and-dried, unambiguous.

Really?  If only actual life were so simple.  My experience tells me that fear, sadness, and anger (“the big three,” as they’re known in my brain) often hide behind each other, or pretend to be something they’re not, or otherwise muck things up and make for confusion and uncertainty.  Much as I may wish that they would straighten themselves out in the people I know in real life, I actually like to see them muddled in works of fiction, because then I have the pleasure of trying to unknot them, thereby learning more about the characters than they know about themselves.

Right now, I’m puzzling over Wallace, a secondary character in the book I’m working on.  He is an angry boy, insisting on doing things his way, often yelling.  But because I want Wallace to be lifelike, I know that when he says he’s angry, there’s something else going on.  He may be angry, but he’s also scared. 

My father, who died when I was 19, and whom I adored, was angry all the time.  He was angry at patients who didn’t follow his post-surgical instructions.  He was angry at the checkers at Safeway, who always overcharged him (not realizing that he had tallied his purchases to the penny in his head).  He was angry that I had frustrated his efforts to make me into a classical violinist.  He was angry at Nixon.
Years after he died, I was telling someone that he had given up a lucrative private practice to work in an organization that covered his malpractice insurance.  And that once, on a gondola over the Canadian Rockies, he had ordered me to stop turning my head to see out both windows, and then walked down the mountain rather than take the return trip.

“Wow,” my friend said.  “He was really a scared guy.”

My father?  The guy who yelled a lot, who wouldn’t let my mother have a checking account, who vacuumed the entire house after the cleaning lady went home, who wrote me a letter a day during my freshman year of college?

Yeah.  That guy.

Because he was a person, and people are complicated.

I learned a lot from my father in the short time I knew him, but the most important thing I learned was that even very smart people don’t always know why they feel the way they do.

It’s  knowledge that has come in surprisingly handy, over the years.  And it has certainly made me a better writer.


  1. Gina, I adore you. This is so wise and very needed as I try to get to know some characters of my own.

    1. Sus, i adore you, too! thanks for your nice words. keep on writing!