THE THINGS THEY CARRIED
Once I had sketched out the ups and downs of the plot, I was able to start bringing in the other stories. They were, in some sense, my characters’ pasts, and they would enter as memories. But it wasn’t as simple as making each story into a flashback. I had to think about each story carefully. What did it reveal about its narrator? At what point in the novel did the reader need to learn this? At what point did it make sense for the character to look back? And how should that looking-back fit into the action?
All my carefully written stories were now being treated as mere lackeys to the plot’s maharajah. The wonderful surprise was that, in treating them this way, I could bring out subtle connections between the past and the present. Good characters are like real people: They go through life trailing their pasts behind them, like Wordsworth’s clouds of glory. Actually, most of our pasts are probably less like clouds of glory than like the grubby blankets of toddlers. In any case, our actions and reactions are never based simply on the present, but on history—our history—and how it has shaped us. For instance, one of my characters avoids a confrontation with her fiancé by looking back nostalgically on an earlier relationship. The reader thus learns about her past, but also about her future: What will have to change if things are to be different now? This constant dialogue between the past and present became, in part, the subject of Flight.
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
People interact not only with their pasts, but with other people and their pasts too. The question of character quickly came to the foreground for me. My linked stories focused on one family, but they told the family’s story from different points of view. I wanted to keep the multiple perspectives in the novel, because I wanted to capture the interplay between similarity and difference in families. We are like our families because we have forged ourselves together. But we are different from them too, because we so often define ourselves in opposition to them.
Novels can include more than one point of view, but they’re rarely egalitarian about it. Even though I was committed to keeping my multiple points of view, I quickly saw that one character was going to dominate—in my novel’s case, the father. Once I discovered that, I could let him lead, weaving the other points of view around his so that they informed his and each other’s.
How do you identify your protagonist? One quick way is to give your manuscript to readers and ask them whose story it is. Readers may have differing opinions of plot or style, but they rarely disagree when it comes to characters. They will almost unfailingly identify with the best-drawn, most real character in your book. This is not necessarily the hero, or even the most fascinating character, but the most authentic.
Another way of approaching this question is to think about your characters in relation to one another. Your protagonist is not necessarily the one you like most, or even the one you find most interesting, but the character most able to throw all the other characters into high relief—the one who can lead us through the story. Jay Gatsby is the most compelling guy in Fitzgerald’s book. But the protagonist is the much blander Nick Carraway, because it’s through his eyes that we best see everyone else.
THE END OF SOMETHING
Once everything was coming together, I had to learn the hardest novel-writing lesson of all: how to let go. In college, I studied writing with the brilliant poet Conrad Hilberry. One day I was struggling in workshop with a poem that just wouldn’t gel. “The hardest thing about writing,” he said, with his inimitable crooked smile, “is accepting that ninety percent of what you write is just practice for the other ten percent.” I know now that he was being generous. He didn’t want to scare me off. Five percent would be closer to the truth.
Several stories from my collection simply didn’t fit into the novel. While I liked them as stories, I came to the realization that they couldn’t forward the plot. They didn’t belong to its trajectory. Saying goodbye may have been the hardest part of writing Flight. It meant I knew things about my characters that the reader didn’t. But I’m told most novelists do.
HERE WE ARE
When Nat Sobel suggested rewriting my collection as a novel, part of me was shocked. A new book I could write, but to change this one so radically? The very suggestion seemed to fly in the face of our vaunted ideals of art. But in truth, I knew the book could be improved. And bringing all my material together as a novel forced me to address my real themes, and to come to terms with what and why I was writing. I hope Flight is a better book for it.
Besides—and I must be a slow learner not to have discovered this sooner—fiction is far more malleable than we might think, especially when it’s character-driven. Anna Karenina throws herself under a train; Lily Bart overdoses. But if Anna had died in childbirth and Lily had ended up on a mental ward, could Tolstoy and Wharton still have written great novels about lives hemmed in by circumstance? Of course. As Sobel told me early on: “They’re your characters. You can do what you want with them.” There’s a glorious freedom in that, as there is in having a larger canvas in which to let them roam. Do you want to take them to the circus? Age them 20 years? Visit them with misfortune? You have the time and the space for it.
So what am I working on now? A novel—and a collection of short stories. I’ve decided to have my sashimi and eat it too. Just, please, hold the sake.
Ginger Strand has written for the Believer and the Village Voice, and is a regular contributor to the Books section of New Zealand’s newspaper the Dominion Post. Her novel, Flight, will be published by Simon & Schuster this month.