Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award finalist and the bestselling author of twelve critically acclaimed novels, including Violet Clay, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Evensong, The Good Husband, and Evenings at Five. She is also the author of The Making of a Writer, her journal in two volumes (ed. Rob Neufeld). She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grants for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Gail Godwin lives in Woodstock, New York.
I was walking on the beach at sunrise three summers ago and falling under the spell of the ocean. Thud-wash. In-out. The watery part of the earth taking regular breaths in your ear. And when you were dead its breaths would still go on. Doing its job with the same rhythm as millions of years ago.
Then I realized I could hear a boy thinking these thoughts. He is sad and afraid. His mother is dead and he has been sent to live with a great aunt on an island. What if the aunt got tired of him and sent him back to foster care? Ocean life is new to him, the gulls, the pelicans, the carcass of a ghost crab half-buried in the sand. “Everything seemed to be sending me a message,” he thinks, “some made me feel good, others not so good.”
Marcus, the eleven-year-old protagonist of Grief Cottage, came to me that way: a boy with a story wanting to be told. In a location I wanted to live in for a while, as he will live in it.
Characters are conceived in many ways. In my last novel, Flora, the character of young Helen began with an idea for a story found in an old diary: “1000 Sunset Drive,” I had written in 1968. Then “children are like bombs waiting to go off.” I asked myself, what would make my child-character “go off” like a bomb?
First or third person?
Once you have spotted your character, you will choose whether he will communicate in first person (“I had only heard tales of her before I went to live with her…”) or third person (“He had only heard tales of her before he went to live with her…”) First person makes for a more intimate telling but restricts you to what that person can know. Third person allows you to provide omniscient information: (“Little did he know that she was battling her own demons.”)
No matter how unlike yourself a fictional character is, you can get inside his/her head by asking the kind of things you might ask about a stranger who intrigues you. What does this person do? How does he treat others? How does he feel about himself? Does she avoid people and make paintings of the same ruined cottage over and over? Does he lovingly restore old Rolls-Royces and Bentleys but refuse to be a representative of his aristocratic clan? If it’s a child, what is his past? If he has grown up poor and on the edge of society has this made him empathetic or wary or resentful – or a combination of all of these? What is his attitude toward himself? How does he feel about his appearance?
Avoid pre-judging characters
“You will see how well your characters talk the moment you stop putting words in their mouths,” said Flaubert.
Don’t demonize them until they’ve at least shown the tip of their horns, and don’t idealize or prettify them. Every heroine or hero can’t be brave and virtuous and tall and beautiful with good teeth. And don’t foist your story on them but feel free to cherry-pick from your wealth of experiences. Proust said that every fictitious character is a composite of at least sixty people. (“One has posed for the grimace, another for the eyeglass, another for the anger, another for the becoming movement of the arm…”)
Draw on the many identities inside you
Learn to make use of the multitude of identities that dwell inside you. Yes, get comfortable with the paradox that each of us is one of a kind, but on a larger human scale we have much in common. We feel the same things and we do or don’t do the same things. You can give a jealous character the jealousy you have felt in your own heart, but purge it of your personal particulars.
Also consider the possibility that some of your characters might be portraits of potential selves, good and bad. And don’t be surprised if, at some point, a character you have created reveals something you needed to know and are at last ready to hear!
Keep a character notebook
This stranger you want to enter, what was her childhood like? What were the experiences that shaped her and motivate her? What dreams and fantasies does she have? Who does she fear? Who does she hate? What does she want more than anything?
You will end up knowing much more about her than you need to put in your story, but the unused information makes her more solid in your mind and gives her substance as well.