The Impatient Character

My biggest reading surprise of 2011 came in the form of Diane Setterfield’s gothic masterpiece, The Thirteenth Tale. Though published in 2008, I somehow managed to miss this novel until last summer when my family took a 1500 mile road trip. I packed five novels in the hopes that one of them would be good. I never made it past the first. And I’m not entirely sure if I spoke to my husband at all during that trip. I was consumed.

In her novel Diane Setterfield introduces us to Vida Winter, a prolific, reclusive author who chooses to tell her life story to a young biographer by the name of Margaret Lea. Vida Winter is one of the most memorable literary characters, and certainly the strongest female character I’ve ever read. She says something in the novel that felt so familiar to me that I’ve never forgotten it:

My study throngs with characters waiting to be written. Imaginary people anxious for life, who tug at my sleeve, crying, 'Me next! Go on! My turn!’ I have to select. And once I have chosen, the others lie quiet for ten months or a year, until I come to the end of the story, and the clamor starts up again.

I have experienced that demanding character, but never so intensely as while finishing my recent novel, The Rule of Three.

For months a new story had been nagging at me, creeping in during those moments when my mind was quiet. A long shower. That stretch of thought before drifting off to sleep. The dream that comes in the stillness before waking.

I recall writing a scene from my newly finished novel. It was a particularly tense argument between my Hero (her name is Stella) and Opponent that took place in an old, Jazz-era bar. There they were, leaning across the table in a dark, corner booth, both of them reaching for a tattered envelope containing a long-kept secret. I paused for a moment, fingers lightly touching the keyboard as I mulled a piece of dialogue. And then…

In the far corner of the bar was a woman delivering a baby! Of all the strange and bizarre things, the character in my next novel had walked into my current novel and set up shop. I could see it in my mind, like a fuzzy TV station that’s been caught between two channels, superimposing one face, one story, over another.

Vida describes that sensation best:

And every so often, through all these writing years, I have lifted my head from the page—at the end of a chapter, or in the quiet pause for thought after a death scene, or sometimes just searching for the right word—and have seen a face at the back of the crowd.

I knew who this character was, of course. Her name is Martha. She’s a midwife. A mother. A diarist. A strong and capable woman if ever there was one. But in that moment she was an intruder. So I gave Martha her own notebook. I scratched down what she was frantically trying to tell me, and I politely escorted her from the premises. Then I shook off her specter and went back to the bar, and my characters bent in heated conversation.

The scene turned out well in case you’re wondering. As did the rest of the novel. But now it’s done. My mind, so battered after wrestling that story to the page, is finally rested. And Martha has renewed her protests, filling all that recently vacated space. It’s her turn. Tomorrow I will open her notebook.

There are other faces in the shadows behind Martha of course. A carpenter. A hoarder. A tattoo artist. They are waiting patiently. For now.

Question for you: What was your biggest 'reading surprise’ of the last year?

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Her novel, THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS, will be published in January 2014 by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

, , , , ,

7 Responses to The Impatient Character

  1. Melinda K Taylor April 18, 2012 at 10:17 am #

    The biggest surprise book of the year was “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” I loved the character so much because I have felt like her so much of my life.

  2. Ariel April 18, 2012 at 10:17 pm #

    I keep hearing about that book, Melinda. That’s usually a good sign that I need to read it.

    Ariel

  3. Tanya Dennis April 18, 2012 at 10:17 pm #

    First: I LOVED “The Thirteenth Tale!” I read it when it first came out and still think about it often. It’s one of those books that, especially as a writer and bibliophile, sticks with you.

    Second: My surprise book this year was “My Name is Mary Sutter.” This historical novel takes a literary dive into both the roles of women and medical practices at during the Civil War. While I love historical novels, this one had a totally different feel than most. It was riveting and haunting and incredibly educational. I don’t know if I would read it again, due to some of the more graphic elements, but am exceedingly glad I read it.

  4. Ariel April 18, 2012 at 10:17 pm #

    I’ll have to go find “My Name is Mary Sutter.” Sounds amazing. I’m a sucker for a well-told historical novel–especially those that are character oriented as opposed to detail oriented. Thanks!

  5. Terry Helwig April 18, 2012 at 10:17 pm #

    Very interesting post, Ariel–I came across it as a result of Twitter. I resonated with it because a fictional character has been “haunting” me for more than a decade. I’ve only written non-fiction (most recently, Moonlight on Linoleum: A Daughter’s Memoir), but I may have to give “Rebecca” a notebook as well. Great idea.

  6. Ariel April 18, 2012 at 10:17 pm #

    Terry! I’ve wanted to read your memoir since I heard about it six months ago. So fun to have you stop by. Now I *have* to go get Moonlight on Linoleum!

    And yes, give Rebecca her own notebook (I prefer the large ones with five sections so I can divide the story into Characters, Plot, Theme, etc). You’ll be amazed at how she comes to life when she’s got room to spread across the pages.

  7. Betty April 22, 2012 at 10:17 pm #

    My surprise book this year was “The Rx Factor” by J. Thomas Shaw. I haven’t really ever been a political thriller type, but a friend suggested it so I read it- Loved it- great story from beginning to end. Can’t wait to check out “The Thirteenth Tale.”
    http://www.therxfactor.com

Leave a Reply