I talk over people when I drink too much caffeine. I either finish their sentences or cut them off to make my point. Bad manners aside, I miss what they have to say, or how they’re saying it. I also miss their silences, where Grace Paley claims “little truths growl.”
I can’t blame Diet Coke, however, when I talk over my fictional characters. Authorial intrusions are stealthy, insidious, and capable of sabotaging a perfectly good story, and what’s lost is the hard work invested in creating a character’s voice.
For example, my first novel, Washing the Dead, tells the story of a Jewish woman’s quest to return to her Orthodox community. In the early drafts of the book, my opinions about the custom of men and women sitting separately during services infested my sentences via snide phrases here and there. I grew up in a synagogue with such gender segregation, but during my first semester in college, writers Sandra Bartky and Andrea Dworkin opened my eyes to the myriad ways women are marginalized.
After I received too many rejections to count, a wise editor asked why my protagonist wanted to return to a spiritual home she found so distasteful. I felt as though she’d poured an ice-cold glass of Manischevitz over my head. “No, no, that wasn’t it at all!” I wrote her and proceeded to explain that my character yearned deeply to return to this warm, maternal cocoon of the women’s section of her synagogue. In responding to her comment, though, I realized that my protagonist didn’t give a hoot about Sandra Bartky; the term “feminist” was a part of my identity, not my character’s. I tweezed out every snarky phrase and in so doing learned that in order to move forward as a writer, I needed to muzzle the Greek chorus and abandon the various and sundry tags I’d assigned to myself.
An actor once introduced me to a technique called the “Y” model. She used it when she had difficulty relating to the Blanche DuBois character in A Streetcar Named Desire, but I think it’s even more effective when the biographical facts of the author and the character overlap. It works like this: the actor draws on her own emotions to tap into a character’s feeling-state, and this work can be visualized as the base of the letter “Y.” At some point, the actor/writer follows the character’s scent and grants the character the freedom to branch off in her own direction; her interpretation is connected to the scripted character but allows a portrayal unique to this performance. If this separation does not occur, then the actor/writer is at risk of “talking over” the character.
The “Y” technique helps me both grab a hold of my character’s heart and then let her go, bypassing internal squabbles between disparate parts of my own identity (e.g. Jew versus feminist). Of course, I never would have thought to set my novel in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue had I not spent the formative years in this community. I agree with Willa Cather that “most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” Yet my character had a right to her own reactions to her childhood experiences.
What I’ve come to learn, albeit glacially, is that in order for me to be the best listener, to both real and fictional characters in my life, I have to forgo the caffeine and focus on them, not on the things I might be waiting to say, and tend to their words with great passion, respect, and tenderness. Ironically, both Hasidic Jews and feminists have shared with me that they felt my portrayal of the women in my fictive community was a refreshing look at the role of Orthodox Jewish women and a feminist statement respectively. I do not tell them that this was not my intention because I can’t speak for my character in this regard either. She already spoke for herself.
Michelle Brafman is the author of Washing the Dead and Bertrand Court. Her work has appeared in Slate, Tablet, the Los Angeles Review of Books, LitHub, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing program.