Character Journeys

Recently, in my memoir class, we were dissecting a scene in the book Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro.

It’s the first time readers meet Lenny, (a pseudonym, but he’s definitely a real-life stinker). The protagonist, Dani, calls Lenny’s office, and his assistant answers the phone. And then Shapiro reveals the first character detail:

“I have often wondered how she [the assistant] keeps it all straight: wife, daughters, girlfriend.”

We know this about Lenny before Shapiro even tells us his name.

Is Shapiro using this scene to frame Lenny as a serial adulterer and a villain? No. She’s establishing the nature of their relationship.

In Elements of FictionnovelistWalter Mosley writes that our characters are “synonymous with journey, because every important player moves within and is transformed by the story.” So, when they first appear, you’re not merely introducing them as people. You’re launching your story.

By the time Dani calls Lenny, she knows her parents have been in a serious car accident, the book’s inciting incident. She knows she must return home to New Jersey from California. But her first call is not to an airline, or a best friend, or even to her half-sister, whom no one has yet thought to notify. Dani’s first call is, instead, to Lenny.

As she tells him about the accident, Dani hyperventilates. Lenny coaches her through it. “Just do what I tell you,” he says, advising her to breathe into a bag.  “Good girl,” he says.

Also, he also calls her “cupcake.”

“It is worthwhile, I believe,” Mosley writes, “to attempt to tell a story from its negative spaces, to allow the reader to wonder what is real before you reveal the truth, affording the reader an understanding of the lies told to keep the narrator safe and sound — she believes.”

When she can breathe again, Dani asks Lenny to get her home. Dani is 23 years old, with a phone and a credit card (it’s pre-internet), but she asks her married boyfriend to book her a flight to New Jersey. To me, this is the most important detail of the scene because, while it definitely establishes multiple red flags about Lenny’s character, the big takeaway is how dependent Dani is on him.

It’s not a long or ornate scene, but with it, Shapiro effectively sets the story in motion. Already struggling, our protagonist hurtles into an ordeal, weighed down with Lenny, and whatever internal reasons she bears for being so dependent on him. She’s erected what Mosley calls any narrative’s “major, and certainly most irreplaceable, pillars.”

“The [characters’] world is always in flux,” Mosley writes. “Its inhabitants are flotsam, seeking refuge in each other on the relentless tide of story.”

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Upending Expectations

Early in her recent memoir You Could Make This Place Beautiful, Maggie Smith writes about confronting her husband about his affair. We see her wake him up, and then, scene over. “Maybe you want a scene here… But while we’re on the subject: Why would you want to be in that room with us? Maybe I’m sparing you something.”

Is that scene really what we, as readers, want? Or is it just what we expect?

It’s a familiar dynamic in workshop: A writer turns in a story with a recognizable narrative—the bad diagnosis, the addiction recovery, the divorce, the roommate who admires your style a little too fervently. Should a familiar piece be missing, classmates ask why. Where’s the hitting-bottom scene? Where’s the scene where the husband lies to his wife?

But those scenes aren’t mandatory. They’re not always necessary. They can even steer the writer away from the real story.

Recently, the author Madhushree Ghosh visited my class to discuss her mouth-watering memoir Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family. In it, Madhushree rejects parts of the familiar narrative in many ways, but two stand out to me.

One, she named the character of her ex-husband “my now ex,” and uses it from the first reference on, even in the early chapters when they are dating, meeting each other’s parents, falling in love. The reader knows, from the jump, their relationship is doomed. Second, she doesn’t mention her now ex’s mental health diagnosis until near the end of the book.

Madhushree said she did consider sticking to the familiar arc of the love-found, love-lost story, but she quickly figured out, doing so would have fundamentally altered her portrayal of the book’s most important character: herself.

“You have to decide where you want to put your power,” she said. “My now ex, and to a certain extent his parents, they are part of the story, but they’re not the story. Not naming my now ex, or my now ex-in-laws, that means the power continues to reside with me.”

Because of those decisions, the reader immediately knows the protagonist as the woman who emigrated, who emerged from that marriage, who loves cooking. Even when they’re reading about her as a girl eating the last guava, or the teenager locked in a bathroom with a ghost.

“I wanted to make sure folks understood this memoir uses food as a social justice tool,” Madhushree said. “And I also wanted to make sure they understood that if there are two South Asian women in a room, one of them has a story they haven’t been able to share with you yet.”

Once she identified those goals, her choices about her now ex were not only easy, they were obvious. I’d love to tell you to ignore the expectations people have about stories, the expectations we hold without even realizing it. But who are we kidding? Those expectations are everywhere. Better to do as Madhushree did, and notice when you’re writing to those expectations, then make a deliberate choice to write what’s important to you, as the author of your own story.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

A Title That Works

Awhile back, I was working with a student whose memoir encompassed the AIDS epidemic, being (illegally) deported from American Samoa, taking a midnight tour of Algiers, lecturing Madeleine Albright on the United Nations’ failures during the AIDS crisis (while Albright was the UN Ambassador), and explaining a suitcase full of female condoms to curious customs inspectors in Tehran.

And the title Martina Clark was working with for this romp through international awkward encounters? My Accidental Life. 

“You may have to rethink that,” I said.

Martina liked it because her life and her story are just so full of surprises. But I kept tripping over “Accidental.” I mean, Martina puts the “active” in activist.

Ultimately, a few more surprises would determine the title for Martina’s memoir: My Unexpected Life: An International Memoir of Two Pandemics, HIV and COVID-19.

“My life…is, indeed, filled with many—many—unexpected events,” Martina says. “And I’ve bookended the memoir with COVID which, unfortunately, is also timely and relevant.”

In looking for her title in the surprises, adventures, and urgent social issues of her story, Martina did exactly what Kristen Paulson-Nguyen recommends.

Paulson-Nguyen is a professional title doctor (yes, that’s a thing!), and the No. 1 mistake she sees is authors choosing soft-focus titles.

“A vague title does a book a disservice,” she says. “I begin with the writer’s query letter and synopsis. They contain vivid imagery; action; and the specifics of your story’s world.”

OK, you’ve found imagery, action, and details. Now what?

Play, Paulson-Nguyen says. Try:

  • Reworking a significant snippet of dialogue;
  • Enlivening a phrase by adding a verb;
  • Linking two words you don’t usually see together, like Katherine Standefer’s book Lightning Flowers;
  • Making up a new word, like Samantha Montano’s Disasterology.

These are the moves Gotham Fiction teacher Divya Sood tries for her own books. With her first novel, a story about reincarnation manifested through shared dreams, Divya landed her title when she finally decided on the name for her protagonist: Maya,which means illusion in Sanskrit.

For her second novel, she realized her characters refer repeatedly to a line from the poem “Tonight I Write” by Pablo Neruda: “Through nights like this one I held her in my arms. I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.”

“The book—Nights Like These—is about love and loss,” Divya says. “So, I thought it apt.”

Once you have a good candidate for a title, you still have one more test to run, Paulson-Nguyen says. Read it to your friends. If they pause before gushing, “I love it!” it’s still not the right one.

When it’s right, they’ll react immediately, Paulson-Nguyen says. “We all recognize a title that works.”

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty