“The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”
— Flannery O’Connor, American novelist, 1925-64
“A story is finished when the mystery of the character has been revealed. That’s what Flannery O’Connor wrote at least, and she tends to get it right. And no mystery can be revealed if the character isn’t challenged to come to terms with what makes her alive: the desires that get her up in the morning in the first place, whether she understands them or not.”
— Michelle Hoover, in The Duplicity of A Character’s Desire, Writer Unboxed, 3/20/16
(Illustration: pastel on garnet paper, by Leslie)
I’m enjoying picking a theme for the month’s quotes, and hope you are, too. By the way, if you come across a quote you love about writing, art, or creativity that you’d like to share, send it to me at email@example.com — merci!
“Surely the test of a novel’s characters is that you feel a strong interest in them and their affairs—the good to be successful, the bad to suffer failure.”
— Mark Twain
(Photo: My latest box of characters, officially out June 8 but already available in some outlets!)
“When I’m designing a character, I begin with a name. To my way of thinking, it’s impossible to create a character without one. The name I choose cannot be arbitrary, either. It’s the first of the tools that I can use in revealing who and what my creation is, and silly is the writer who fails to recognize this and just slaps any old name on a character without realizing that name’s import to the reader. Names can suggest just about anything to the reader. … traits of personality … social and ethnic background … geography … attitude, or even events that are yet to happen in the story. Names influence how a reader will feel about a character. They also make it easier for the writer to create a character.”
— Elizabeth George, American crime novelist, in Write Away!
“I always get involved with my characters. As soon as I name them I believe them.”
– Ellen Gilchrist, American novelist, in The Writer, Feb 2006
“Names generate meaning in a short amount of space—they provoke thoughts, questions. That’s something I like doing. Of course, you have to be careful. Sometimes it can alienate the reader, it can be another level of mediation, to make a character carry the great burden of a metaphoric name. The character can be a device before he or she becomes a person, and that can be a bad thing for a writer who wants to offer up a kind of emotional proximity in the work. It’s a constant struggle, the desire to be playful and the desire to communicate on some very stark emotional level.”
—Joshua Ferris, American novelist, heard on NPR, 5/20/14
“Show me a man or woman entirely happy with his or her name and I’ll show you a somehow defective human being.”
—Joseph Epstein, The Middle of My Tether (1983)
(Quote via Bryan Garner’s occasional blog on usage)
I’m working on a new novel, and discovering the characters’ names is always interesting. Our names shape us, and many of us have love-hate relationships with them. Some of us change names during our lives, changing how we view ourselves. More than once, I’ve written an entire draft, then changed a character’s name, for various reasons, and seen that character suddenly come alive when given the right handle. So, for April, a few quotes on naming.
“From time immemorial men have thought that there is some mysterious essential connection between a thing and the spoken name for it. You could use the name of your enemy, not only to designate him either passionately or dispassionately, but also to exercise a baleful influence over him. . . . Not only people, but plants, animals, forces of nature, gods, demons, in fact all creatures could be affected for good or ill by solemn pronunciation of their names in the proper context.”
— Margaret Schlauch, The Gift of Tongues (1943; repr. 1960)
(Quote via Bryan Garner’s occasional blog on usage.)
“I think that the job of imagining how it feels to be other than oneself is a useful vocation. By trying to understand and narrate the lives of others, artists hope to bring about the small leaps of empathy that allow societies to bridge divides of heritage.”
— Chris Cleave, author of Everyone Brave Is Forgiven
(hat tip to PJ Coldren)
(And what says empathy better than a live cat kissing a stone one?)
“Story is all about how someone’s worldview changes. …
What this means is that you must begin with empathy for every single character you create, even characters who do things you’d never ever do. After all, what people do isn’t what gives us empathy for them. Why they do it is where empathy comes from.
In fact that’s what empathy is. To wit: empathy is the ability to feel what other people feel about a situation for the same reason they feel it. In other words, empathy is giving dignity and weight to their feelings, even if you disagree with the conclusion they’ve drawn.”
– Lisa Cron, Writer Unboxed, 12/8/16