Emilie Richards, one of my best friends as well as one of my favorite authors, is going to join me for a chat on our blogs. To celebrate Emilie’s new book, One Mountain Away, we decided to have a conversation about characters—specifically characters who might not be all that sympathetic, at least not at first blush. We’ll start our chat here on my blog and then move it to hers very soon. I hope you’ll enjoy our little give and take. We’ll be giving away copies of Sunset Bridge (Emilie’s) and Summer’s Child (Diane’s) to randomly selected commenters on each of our blogs. Good luck!
Diane: Emilie, I loved One Mountain Away and found it moving and uplifting. Before we start talking about our characters, can you tell my readers a little about the book?
Emilie: One Mountain Away is the first book of the Goddesses Anonymous series, set in Asheville, NC. The theme running subtly through all the stories is the way that women reach out to other women who need them. Friends, strangers, family. This is a tough time, and I strongly believe that the only way some people are going to get through it is with the help of others who reach out to them. I want to explore that in all its guises and disguises. One Mountain Away is the story of a woman who, after looking back at her own life, realizes she has valued all the wrong things. Charlotte Hale has lost her family and has never bothered to cultivate real friendships. Suddenly her life seems very bleak. Charlotte knows she can’t change everything she’s done or been, but she can choose the things that are most important and try to change them. And so she sets about doing so. The novel explores her past, but for the most part, it concentrates on what ensues when she opens her heart.
Diane: As you know, I absolutely loved One Mountain Away (and the whole Goddesses Anonymous concept) and thought it was a truly touching story. But Charlotte. . . wow, I wasn’t crazy about her in the beginning! The story was engaging enough that I kept reading, but I frankly didn’t like her. I’ve had unsympathetic characters in my novels and it’s a fine balancing act to keep the reader engaged while also keeping the character true to the story. How did you feel as you were writing about Charlotte?
Emilie: You and I share a desire for new writing challenges, don’t we? I’ve always known an unsympathetic character can send readers screaming into the night. However I love writing about the way people grow, and how can they grow if they don’t have any place to go? So all characters by necessity must have something about them that needs to change and hopefully does. There is, of course, more than one way to make that transition palatable for the reader.
In this case Charlotte has a lot of room for growth. She’s made a lot of mistakes in her life. After struggling with that, I decided that we should meet her when she’s already begun to change, when she’s already more sympathetic. Of course we also see her through the eyes of people who’ve known the unsympathetic Charlotte and don’t trust her. So we get a good look at that Charlotte, too. But I tried to make it clear that she was on a different path. I hope readers will wonder about both the old and the new woman and what brought about the changes.
Which of your characters was most unsympathetic, do you think, and how did you make them appealing to read about anyway? Because, of course you do. I’m thinking of Annie in Keeper of the Light and Noelle in The Midwife’s Confession.
Diane: What you said about growth really resonates with me. When I first think about a character, I ask myself, “How do I want this character to grow during the story? How do I want her to end up?” Then I have that end point as my goal. It does mean, though, that the character has to start from some not-so-wonderful place. I think the best thing we can do is help the reader see bits of herself in those characters, so they can truly cheer them on as they change and grow.
Annie and Noelle are unique cases, though, in that they’re both dead when the stories open. Thus, change is limited! I think then it’s important to understand why they are the way they are. It’s the same with living characters, too, like your Charlotte. Once we understand their life experiences, we feel for them. Very early in my schooling as a counselor, I worked in a halfway house for teens. It was my first experience working with teenagers and honestly, they got under my skin. My supervisor asked me one simple but profound question: “why do you think they are the way they are?” Once I thought about their lives and their upbringing, my sympathy for them increased, along with my tolerance and desire to help them. I’ve learned to ask that question of my characters as well.
Thanks for reading. . . Emilie and I will be continuing our conversation on her blog on Friday. Be sure to watch for it there, and please leave a comment for a chance to win our books.