I’m delighted today that author Nina Schuyler has made Thoughts in Progress one of the stops on her WOW Virtual Book Tour for her latest release, THE TRANSLATOR: A Novel.
During her visit, Nina will be talking about creating complex female characters. In addition, she is sponsoring a tour wide Rafflecopter giveaway of THE TRANSLATOR and a packet of bonsai seeds for the Japanese cherry blossom, the blooms featured on the book’s cover. Please see the end of the post for more details on the giveaway.
Here’s a synopsis of THE TRANSLATOR:
When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, she suffers an unusual condition― the loss of her native language. Speaking only Japanese, a language she learned later in life, she leaves for Japan. There, to Hanne’s shock, the Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated confronts her publicly for sabotaging his work.
Reeling, Hanne seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel ― a tortured, chimerical actor, once a master in the art of Noh Theater. Through their passionate, volatile relationship, Hanne is forced to reexamine how she has lived her life, including her estranged relationship with her daughter. In elegant prose, Nina Schuyler offers a deeply moving and mesmerizing story about language, love, and the transcendence of family.
THE TRANSLATOR won the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award for General Fiction and placed second for overall fiction. It was also shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize.
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Pegasus (August 15, 2014)
This book is available as a print book, e-book and audiobook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.
Please join me in giving Nina a warm TIP welcome as she talks about creating those complex female characters we all enjoy reading about. Welcome, Nina.
Let me tell you about my Great Aunt Vera. Her house is her sanctum, and she refuses to let a fallen napkin soil her carpeted floor, or a wet towel hang in the bathroom for more than one minute. She goes to the beauty parlor every Tuesday to get her hair done in tight gray curls, and the dry cleaners on Friday, where she takes her husband's shirts. By now, you are settling into a picture of her and assigning adjectives: controlling, demanding, orderly.
But what if I told you her husband has been cheating on her for years, with multiple women, and she knows it. And she only has two pairs of shoes, one of them filled with holes. And she suffers from vertigo, but refuses to seek medical help because her husband thinks doctors are quacks. What is happening to that picture of her?
E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel came up with the term, "round character," which he defined as a character" capable of surprising in a convincing way." If the character never surprises, it is "flat." With the latter information about Great Aunt Vera, I've moved her from flat to round, from simple to complex. A reader can anticipate my Great Aunt Vera's actions, but can't predict them. She has become far more engaging and, I'd argue, riveting, because you don't know exactly what she'll do. She's also become more real, more alive, because to be human means to be flawed and full of baffling contradictions. Complex characters confirm and upset our expectations.
It's common for stereotypical, or simple characters, to populate early drafts. Here are some things to dismantle stereotypes and create complex and compelling female characters.
1. Contradictions. In my story about my Great Aunt Vera, I included specific details about her controlling nature, but then I gave you a different set of specific details that upset any neat conclusion. How could someone so controlling own shoes filled with holes? Or live with a man who led a secret life, one that Great Aunt Vera had no control over? In Euphoria, by Lily King, one of her main protagonists, Nell Stone, is an anthropologist who is nurturing and motherly, but she's also ambitious, unrelenting, and direct. As one character says about Nell: "No delicate changing of the subject, no You have my deepest condolences or even How ghastly for you, but just a no-nonsense, straight-on How the heck did that happen?" The reader is engaged and keeps reading to reconcile the contradictions.
Try this: Make a list of your character's qualities and traits. Now list the opposite of these qualities and traits. Be as specific as possible. Could two or three of these opposite traits come into the story?
2. Explore the Shadow Side: Most "good" traits or qualities have, to use Carl Jung's term, a "shadow" side--whatever is deemed evil, inferior or unacceptable. You might have a character who exhibits the typical qualities associated with femaleness: nurturing, mothering, kind, receptive, virtuous, accommodating. But what might be their shadow side? I'm reminded of Alice Munro's short story, "Prue," in the short story collection, The Moons of Jupiter, in which Prue, the main female character, is always accommodating, never voicing her wants or needs. But at the end of the story, Prim surprises, when she steals one cufflink from her lover. "Taking one is not a real theft. It could be a reminder, an intimate prank, a piece of nonsense." Since she can't bring herself to ask for what she really wants, she turns to thievery. In The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, Nora is outwardly tidy, quiet, pleasing, but inwardly pulsating with rage by her constant capitulation to the desires of others and her own stalled artistic drive.
Try this: Does your female character exhibit some of the more traditional female qualities? Make a list of these qualities. What are the costs or downsides of these traits? What isn't being expressed? Ask yourself, what does the character want? How might she go about getting it?
3. Uncover and Upset Your Biases and Assumptions: We are swimming in a cultural milieu and have, from day one, been immersed in our culture's definitions of gender. It's easy not to be aware of your own biases and assumptions. In my work-in-progress novel, I have a female nurse. In the first draft, she was perfectly stereotypical--helpful, compassionate, kind. I couldn't budge her from this flat, predictable depiction. Desperate, I rewrote her as a male to see what else might unfold. My male nurse, too, was caring and kind, but also had a quick temper and was obnoxiously stubborn. I'm not saying only men have these traits, but I was so stuck in my version of a female nurse, I couldn't make her more complex without changing her gender. In the next revision, I changed my character back into a female and gave her these new traits.
Try this: What traits have you unknowingly given your female character? Try to unearth your assumptions by changing your character into a man. What emerges?
4. Conflicting Desires: A character becomes complex when she has conflicting desires or a desire that is sometimes supported and sometimes undercut by her motivations and wishes. In my novel, The Translator, Hanne is a translator who has been accused of mistranslating a novel. She wants to redeem herself and prove herself right, so she seeks out the inspiration of the novel, a man named Moto. Yet Moto reminds Hanne of her daughter, and she doesn't want to think about Brigette. There's tension in the conflicting desires of wanting to be with Moto and, at the same time, wanting to flee. You can guess Hanne's actions and choices, but Hanne is capable of surprise, because you can't be sure what, exactly, she'll do.
Try this: Identify your character's desire. Make a list of other possible desires that are in conflict with this first desire. Make another list of traits or qualities that will help the character realize her desire, and those that will undermine the desire.
Far more than flat or stereotypical characters, complex female characters engage and haunt readers. They get under your skin, allowing you to feel like you know an individual--real, lifelike, and bafflingly complicated. I'd love to hear your strategies for creating complex female characters.
Nina, thanks for joining us today and sharing this insight into developing complex characters. The round Great Aunt Vera character you described is far more appealing than the flat version.
Now for those who aren’t familiar with Nina, here’s a bit of background on her.
|Author Nina Schuyler|
Her short story, “The Bob Society,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poems, short stories and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Santa Clara Review, Fugue, The Meadowland Review, The Battered Suitcase, and other literary journals. She reviews fiction for The Rumpus and The Children’s Book Review. She’s fiction editor at Able Muse.
She attended Stanford University for her undergraduate degree, earned a law degree at Hastings College of the Law and an MFA in fiction with an emphasis on poetry at San Francisco State University. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco.
For more on Nina and her writing, visit her website and contact with her on Facebook and Twitter.
Nina began her virtual book tour on Monday, Sept. 14, and will continue it until Friday, Oct. 16. You can find out even more about her and her book by visiting the blogs below that are participating in the tour.
Monday, September 14(today!) @ The Muffin
Tuesday, September 15 @ Lisa Haselton’s Reviews and Interviews
Wednesday, September 16 @ A Writer’s Life
Friday, September 18 @ Renee’s Pages
Monday, September 21 @ Thoughts in Progress
Wednesday, September 23 @ Fresh Fiction
Thursday, September 24 @ Building Bookshelves
Friday, September 25 @ All Things Audry
Sunday, July 27 @ Writer Unboxed
Monday, July 28 @ MC Simon Writes
Wednesday, September 30 @ Bring on Lemons
Friday, October 2 @ Words by Webb
Monday, October 5 @ Vickie Miller
Wednesday, October 7 @ MC Simon Writes
Thursday, October 8 @ Puddletown Reviews
Friday, October 9 @ Deal Sharing Aunt
Remember I mentioned earlier that Nina is also sponsoring a tour wide Rafflecopter giveaway of THE TRANSLATOR and a packet of bonsai seeds for the Japanese cherry blossom, the blooms featured on the book’s cover.
To enter the giveaway, just click on the Rafflecopter widget below and follow the instruction. The widget may take a few seconds to load so please be patient.
Thanks so much for dropping by during Nina’s visit. Do you like flat or rounded characters when reading? If you’re a writer, how do you go about shaping your characters?
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a Rafflecopter giveaway