Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro 

September 2014

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“The character must be active, not passive, in changing his fate.”

You’re going to have to hang out with your characters for maybe 10-400 pages, so they had better have personalities that interest you. That doesn’t mean they have to be likeable. They can be villains, but they have to have some problem that makes them that way. a past that makes them sympathetic, even if they are horrible today.

In Mary McGarry Morris’ A Dangerous Woman, Martha Horgan, who will commit murder—this isn’t a spoiler. We know from the first line—is a woman in her early thirties who stares too intently at people, gets mad crushes and cannot stop telling her truth, which gets her into danger. She goes around in her dead father’s clothes and kids chase her, yelling her name. She won’t go anywhere new because she feels as if parts of her will fall off. You wouldn’t want to be around Martha in real life, but you just can’t stop reading about her in the novel. You become outraged on her behalf because of her past, her impediments, her neglect. Creating sympathy is something every defense attorney knows, so why should it be hidden from a writer?

The character must be active, not passive, in changing his fate. He must make decisions, even if they are wrong, to control or change his destiny. Where would Jack be if he hadn’t decided to climb the beanstalk? What if Peter Rabbit had just stayed on his family’s side of the yard? You’d have no plot, and a character worth more cooked in a stew than not.

“Characters need to have all the emotions that we do.”

A character has to want something, has to have a motive. In my novel, Kaylee’s Ghost, the psychic, Miriam Kaminsky (my alter ego), wants more than anything to have the same mentoring relationship with her granddaughter, Violet, who she believes has her gift as she did with her own psychic grandmother, Bubbie. But Miriam’s daughter, a modern businesswoman who knows all too well the pitfalls, digs in her heels. The more Miriam struggles toward her goal, the worse things get until her gift puts Violet in danger, and she has to reconsider.

Characters need to have all the emotions that we do. Think of Nick Carraway’s disillusionment with his cousin Daisy’s “old money” world in The Great Gatsby. Think about how angry Mrs. Cottontail gets when her bunny boy, Peter, disobeys her. Oh, and the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, scared of everything. What your character is afraid of or happy or angry or sad about, defines him.

Each character needs to have an internal conflict. He wants this, but doesn’t want that. Or he wants this, but also wants that, which would make it impossible. The Cowardly Lion wants courage that he believes he can only get from the wizard, but he’s terrified to go on the journey to get what he’s always longed for.

There has to be internal conflicts, too. For example, in my first novel, Miriam the Medium, Miriam can solve her clients’ problems, but her own husband and daughter want no part of her gif, although she see has the answers. But Miriam’s inner conflict is that she doubts the worth of her own psychic ability at times, so her family’s criticism of her hits harder. External/Internal.

The characters need to be good at something and it needs to be believable. In Tinderbox by Lisa Gornick, one character is a dermatologist, another a psychotherapist. Lisa, a psychotherapist herself, was able to create a fascinating character, Myra, whose insights and perceptions illuminate the other characters and herself. Her daughter-in-law, Rachida, a dermatologist from Morocco, teaches us a thing or two about her field and her culture because the author has done her homework.

“. . . the characters have to have flaws.”

And the characters have to have flaws. No one would believe in the mother in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a woman with over much forbearance and understanding. Instead, we identify with Beth who is selfish and spoiled at the outset, and Jo, who is independent.

Have fun with your characters and they’ll treat you right. (And the reader.)

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s first novel, Miriam The Medium (Simon & Schuster), was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Her novel, Kaylee’s Ghost (Amazon and Nook), is an Indie Finalist. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives), and Newsweek and in many anthologies. Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in The Coe Review, Compass Rose, The Griffin, Inkwell Magazine, The Iowa Review, Los Angeles Review, The MacGuffin, Memoir And, Moment, Negative Capability, Pennsylvania English, The Carolina Review, and more. She won the Brandon Memorial Literary Award from Negative Capability. Shapiro is a professional psychic who currently teaches writing at UCLA Extension.