In our recent Women's Writing Circle workshop, Writing Real Characters in Memoir or Fiction, each of us took a stab at writing a portrait of a character. Who are they? What makes them “tick”? Who was I to them? Who were they to me?
We learned that characters can be broken down into four crucial elements.
- A driving need, a desire, ambition or goal.
- A secret.
- A contradiction.
- A vulnerability.
With many thanks to David Corbett for this fabulous article in "Writer's Digest", we learned that by focusing on one, or several of these elements, we bring our characters to life.
As we explore our characters, we also explore our choices and our lives. As Corbett writes: Obviously, plumbing your own life will not provide access to the whole of your characters’ inner lives (unless your characters inhabit the same world you do). Rather, these moments provide touchstones, points of access to begin the exploration into similar moments in your characters’ lives...
When it comes to writing our stories—memoir or fiction—and the characters who populate them, we can either paint people in black or white—as villains or heroes—or we can show their greatest moment of courage; their greatest moment of sorrow…the moment of greatest fear…of joy. In a community, whether writers or otherwise, and depending on the health of that community, we can claim our own experience.
In this photograph of my late husband, John M. Cavalieri, as a young man looking off into the distance that is the California countryside, I am reminded how love—the very idea of it and the desire for it—has driven my creative writing. Who was Jay to Ava in A Portrait of Love and Honor? A man of great courage? A man unafraid to show his vulnerability? What drew them to each other? As the book’s synopsis says: Facing one setback after another, their love embraces friendship, crisis, dignity, disillusionment. Their love story reflects a reason for living in the face of life's unexpected events.
What is it about love that so compels us to put pen to paper? Is it the memory? The moment we hope to recapture? The mystery? The magic? The longing? The need to find meaning in our existential lives?
If you have ever read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I was recently re-introduced to, you might recall a chapter—perhaps the most famous of this writer’s— known as "The Grand Inquisitor", which can be read for free here. I think it offers insight into the writer's quest of seeking answers to difficult questions, both spiritual and the divine.
Christ listens. He remains silent. He leans forward. Then he kisses the old man’s “bloodless, ninety-year-old lips.” The old man shudders. Something has stirred at the corners of his mouth; he goes to the door, opens it and says to Him: "Go and do not come back ... do not come back at all ... ever ... ever!" And he releases him into "the town's dark streets and squares." The Captive departs.' And the old man?' 'The kiss burns within his heart, but the old man remains with his former idea.'
One reason I became an author and a writing teacher and coach was a desire to make a difference in whatever small way I could. We can succumb to authority, never questioning and follow blindly like sheep, or we can take the freedom that is offered by finding our own voice, our own path. Through dialogue and sharing, we come to learn who we are, how we are the masters of our own destiny...if we choose.
As I look at the photograph of my late husband, I remember…I remember the love, I remember the mystery of that time. I think of the choices, the path forward since then. Writing about him offered a touchstone into writing about myself and others. Life, and the people who populate it, is a fascinating journey to undertake and explore. And writing leads the way.