In an age when the term ‘helicopter parent’ has made its way into the popular lexicon, the two sets of parents in Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, are the direct opposites. Their benign neglect of their children and step-children lead to many consequence, and one fatality. The parents’ lack of supervision and care forces the children and step-children to organize their own hierarchy, which results in the formation of bonds that last for decades.
This is just one of the contradictions of this powerful story. Patchett had me with the opening line of the novel: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” This line raises so many interesting questions. What kind of a turn did the party take? Who is Albert Cousins? Who was christened? Why does it matter? The baby as it turned out, was Franny Keating, the closest thing to a protagonist in this family saga.
Patchett expertly balances the many point-of-view characters in this blended family, recounting major events from a variety of viewpoints. She also seamlessly moves back and forward in time without harming the narrative flow.
The story begins when Albert “Bert” Cousins, a Los Angeles Deputy DA crashes the christening party after his co-worker, Dick Spencer, mentioned it at work. Cousins decided to attend so he could get away for a few hours from his pregnant wife and three young children. He didn’t have a gift so he showed up with a bottle of gin. Francis X. “Fix” Keating, Franny’s dad, is an LA cop. He lets Cousins into the house. Cousins spots Beverly, Keating’s attractive wife, and is immediately smitten. A brief kiss at the party sets into motion the destruction of both marriages.
The Keatings’ two children and the Cousins’ four children spend each summer together in Virginia, where Cousins and Beverly move. The two sets of children don’t like each other or the situation they are thrust into, but they are forced to deal with it.
During one summer the parents sleep in at a vacation in a motel. The kids, left on their own, break into the parents’ car and steal a gun and a bottle of gin from the glove compartment. Then they walk two miles to a nearby lake. When they return after having finished off the gin, their parents are none the wiser. The fragile camaraderie in this blended family will grow stronger over the years.
One of the strengths of the story is the multiple points of view. Each character possesses his or her own version of the past and the tragic death of Calvin Cousins as a teen-ager is told through the eyes of several of the characters, each with a unique recollection as to how it happened.
The event that unites the siblings is a novel called, Commonwealth, written by author Leon Posen, who has an affair with Franny. During their affair, Franny confides her family history to the author, who is struggling to come up with a new novel. Posen uses the story of the Keating-Cousins as the plot of a bestselling novel. The siblings bristle at the author’s version of their story, an insight which suggests the view that a family’s history belongs to the family alone.
This is a satisfying story from one of today’s leading authors.
I am a member of a small writer’s group (three to five people), which I consider my safe harbor. We meet twice a month. We welcome submissions that are not ready for prime time. We are candid in our critiques. We don’t hold back criticism.
Recently, I brought in to the group the latest chapter from my work-in-progress. One of the group members whose opinion I value was highly critical of the main character. This member thought the main character came off as dour, unemotional, and joyless. That was not what I had hoped to hear. I promised to renew my efforts to soften the character’s hard edges.
The well-intended criticism got me thinking about an age-old debate in fiction writing. Does the main character have to be likable? Author and blogger K.M. Weiland believes likability is overrated. In this blog post, she wrote, “Forget niceness. Niceness doesn’t enchant readers and doesn’t sell books. This doesn’t mean, of course, that characters can’t be good or moral. It doesn’t mean the only hero worth reading about is the anti-hero. But nobody wants to read about perfection. What readers want is reality. And the reality is that imperfection is by far the more appealing option. A character’s charisma is what draws readers back, not his ‘likability.'”
Angela Ackerman, co-author of The Emotional Thesaurus, an excellent resource for writers, emphasized the importance of creating main characters with flaws in this guest post for Writer’s Digest. But she added a caveat. “To be credible, characters must have flaws as well as strengths, just like real people. There is a tipping point for flaws, however. A bit too much snark or insensitive internal narrative and the character slips into unlikeable territory. Too much surliness, negativity, secretiveness or an overblown reaction and the reader will disconnect, frustrated by character’s narrow range,” Ackerman wrote.
Some of the most memorable characters in fiction were hardly angels. Scarlett O’Hara comes to mind. For the most part, I found Scarlett a petulant, conniving, and manipulative person. Then, why did I stay with Gone With the Wind for more than 1,000 pages? Because Margaret Mitchell made me care about Scarlett. And I discovered her redeeming qualities in the narrative–the way she fought to keep her extended family together during the bleak years of the Civil War, how she protected even her adversary from danger, and how she showed compassion to her family. She made me care.
Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, featured in several novels, is one of my favorite characters in fiction. Yet, even I have to admit, he’s not very likable. He comes across at times as cynical, self-absorbed and emotionally remote. Despite these flaws, Frank resonated with me in a way that few characters have in fiction because he voiced all of the fears and insecurities that many middle aged men feel. Other readers who don’t share my demographic may not have the same opinion of Frank.
So what’s my take on the question of likability? Here are a few ideas:
Make the reader care about your main character. Your main character will go through a struggle and face mounting challenges that will force her to make a transformative change. She may show a range of emotions: joy, hatred, rage, contentment. Make the struggle meaningful, something to which the reader can relate.
Establish early on in the story something about your main character that the reader admires. For example, the main character is incapable of being in a relationship, but it is because she was emotionally abused by her parents.
Show examples of the character’s kindness and humanity, especially at the beginning of the story,
Strive for complexity in your characters (and that includes the antagonist). Real people are complex with multiple aspects to their personalities. The most memorable characters, like Scarlett, are complicated people.
What about you? Do you struggle with the issue of character likability?
J. Courtney Sullivan’s fourth novel, Saints for All Occasions, is a familiar story. Two Irish sisters emigrate to America. Friends of the family take them in until they get jobs. The older sister eventually agrees to an arranged marriage; the younger sister goes astray. They drink too much. They hold secrets and grudges close to the vest. In the end, they gain strength and purpose from their frayed family bonds.
While this is an old story, Sullivan handles it with grace, insight, and an understated wisdom. In the tradition of writers like Alice McDermott, Sullivan writes about the Irish-Catholic experience with authenticity and uncanny perception. As someone who shares this heritage, I feel as though I know the characters in this novel.
The sweeping plot of this family saga centers on two sisters, Nora and Theresa Flynn, who were sent from Ireland to America in the late 1950s. Even though Nora didn’t love Charlie Rafferty, it was understood that she would marry him. Charlie had arrived there earlier while his older brother remained in the old country to run the family farm.
Living with a large Irish clan in Boston, Nora, 21, was serious and steadfast, while Theresa, 17, was gregarious and curious about this new world. When Theresa became pregnant, Nora stepped in and built a plan. Her intention was to protect her sister and preserve the family’s reputation. It was all a lie that took root, grew, and festered over the course of 50 years.
After an intense internal struggle, Theresa left her son behind and became a cloistered nun at a Vermont abbey. Nora and Charlie raised Patrick as their own. They had three children of their own: the over-achiever John, eager to please his parents; the tomboy Bridget, confused about her sexuality; and the youngest, Brian, isolated from his two older siblings, but close to Patrick, who took him under his wing.
The story moved back and forth in time between the late 1950s, the mid 1970s, and 2009. That’s when Patrick died after drinking and driving his car into a concrete wall beneath an overpass on Morrissey Boulevard.
Sullivan hints at what is to come in the first chapter. Driving home from the hospital after hearing the terrible news, Nora recalled a story her husband told about a man in Ireland called the bone setter. The man would come to a home and snap a child’s broken bone into place. “As usual when he spoke of home, Charlie left out the worst bits. The man had set his ankle slightly off. It led the rest of his body to be out of balance so that eventually, his knees bothered him and later, his back.”
The very next paragraph holds the key to this story: “The lies they had told were like this. The original, her sister’s doing. All those that followed, an attempt on Nora’s part to try to preserve what the first one had done, each one putting Patrick even more out of joint. She had accepted this as the price of keeping him safe.”
Patrick’s death brings together a family riven by secrets and unexpressed anger. John is a successful political consultant whose niche is to elect Republican candidates in heavily Democratic Massachusetts. Bridget runs an animal shelter in New York City. She and her partner, Natalie, have decided to have a baby, but Bridget can’t even bring herself to tell her mother she is gay, let alone about the decision to have a baby. Brian, a star athlete, has seen his baseball career stall after spending eight years in the Cleveland Indians minor league system. He lives in his old bedroom at his mom’s house and works in Patrick’s bar in Dorchester.
And then there is Theresa, who is now Mother Cecilia. Nora reluctantly invited her sister to the wake and the funeral, but she refused to put her up at her house. Before the wake and her reunion with Nora, Theresa reflected on her life. “Nothing had just happened to her. She made a choice and then she made another and another after that. Taken together, the small choices anyone made added up to a life.” Yet, she knew the most important choice was not made by her, but by her sister. “Nora never asked her if she could have Patrick, she just took him. But when this made her angry, she reminded herself that Nora had only done what she thought was best.”
While Theresa had long ago forgiven Nora, her older sister still harbored anger and resentment. When they met at the wake in front of Patrick’s body, Nora turned away from Theresa.
Later the family gathered at Nora’s house without Theresa, to consume trays of food and an abundance of alcohol. “There was something appealing about the perfect order of it all, the abundance. They would eat their grief before it swallowed them,” Sullivan wrote.
During this gathering it was Brian, the youngest, who grasped the dynamics of this dysfunctional family. “It didn’t bother him that his mother hadn’t told them about her sister. The family was built on things that went unsaid. There might be hints, whispers from another room that fell to silence when he entered. There were stories he simply accepted that he didn’t know the whole of, and others he didn’t even know he didn’t know the whole of.
“Who wanted to know everything about his own mother?”
Early the next morning, Bridget had a similar moment of truth. “Bridget thought of her family in terms of what they didn’t know about her. She had rarely wondered about the mysteries they harbored. How could you be this close, be a family, and yet be so unknown to one another?”
And, finally, in the early morning hours before Patrick’s funeral, Nora experienced her own epiphany. Wondering why she had bothered to call Theresa to tell her about Patrick’s death, Nora reflected, “…perhaps her better angels had somehow known she needed Theresa here. She had never believed that Theresa loved Patrick. Not the way she did. But standing over his body with Theresa, Nora felt it. Her sister’s grief, as palpable as her own.
And her thoughts eventually go to her own parents, long dead. “It wasn’t right that you could only understand your parents’ pain once you’d experienced the things they had, and by then, in her case anyway, they were gone.”
The ending was abrupt, but deeply satisfying. Sullivan has written a touching family saga that is sad, tragic, and ultimately a story of healing and forgiveness.
I’ve run across a problem recently when writing my work-in-progress. I’m writing scenes of wildly different lengths. Some scenes are a couple of pages long. Other scenes go on for 10 or 12 pages. This bothers me because I believe ideally that scenes should be of relatively equal length. Which leads to another discussion about chapter length, but that’s a topic for another day.
Before we tackle scene length, let’s discuss how to develop a scene. There are so many great resources for fiction writers on scene development. Here’s a good overview from Janice Hardy’s excellent Fiction University blog that focuses on the process of writing a scene.
My friend, Cathy Yardley, expands upon the three elements a scene must contain: Goal/Motivation/Conflict. And she adds a fourth element—Disaster. The sturdy Goal/Motivation/Conflict template that many writers employ is a tried and true approach to scene drafting.
KM Weiland, in her blog and craft of fiction books, goes beyond the Goal/Motivation/Conflict structure and discusses the concept of Scene/Sequel. Each scene leads to a sequel. The scene portion contains a goal, a motivation, and a conflict, but Weiland adds a fourth element, Reaction. And that’s where the Sequel comes in. In the sequel portion, Reaction leads to a Dilemma for the character, which leads to a Decision. And that decision leads to a new Goal. She was written extensively about this concept, but here’s a basic overview. This post features a helpful Info-graphic.
Let me share my process. I start by deciding on a scene goal. What is the overall purpose of the scene? What am I trying to achieve? How does the scene advance the story? What is the goal of the featured character in the scene? I say featured character because each scene is not necessarily told from the POV of the main character. Though there is some disagreement on this point, I believe every scene should be told from the point-of-view (POV) of a character. When choosing a POV character, I subscribe to the adage that it should be the character most affected by what happens in the scene. What’s the POV character’s goal? What’s the POV character’s motivation (both internal and external)? How will the conflict arise? Who, or what, will be the cause of the conflict? Does the conflict arise naturally from the preceding events or actions?
Next, I ask myself how two questions: how is the conflict resolved? Should the conflict be resolved at all, or should it be deepened? Or, should I make things worse for my character? That’s what keeps readers interested and deepens the story. If every conflict gets resolved to the satisfaction of the main character, it makes for a very short, and boring, story.
Now that we’ve gone down the rabbit holes of process, structure and scene development, let’s get back to my original question. How does a writer determine the ideal length of a scene? The short and easy answer comes from some advice I received years ago and I don’t recall the source. The advice was this. “A scene should be as long as it needs to be to achieve its goal.” That answer doesn’t provide much in the way of specific guidance on scene length, but there is some wisdom there. So if you’ve got a scene you believe is too short, ask these questions:
- Does the scene clearly define the goal in a way that the reader can understand? Does the scene goal advance the story?
- Have I adequately shown the motivation of the characters in the scene, not only the POV character, but those who stand in the way of the POV character achieving her goal?
- Does the source of the conflict arise organically from the events or actions that have preceded it? Have you laid the foundation for the conflict through foreshadowing or earlier events? If the conflict comes out of the blue, will it be a major part of the story going forward?
- Will the conflict be resolved by the end of the scene or will it deepen? If it is resolved, will its resolution lead to new problems or obstacles for the main character?
- Apart from questions related to Goal/Conflict/Disaster, there are “logistical” issues the writer must consider. What is the setting where the scene takes place? Does the setting enhance the impact of the scene? For instance, if there is a long simmering family feud, does it boil over at mom’s wake? Or at a family reunion or otherwise joyous occasion? Who is in the scene? How much time has elapsed since the previous scene? Are there actions or other factors that will impact the scene (a car chase, geographic barriers, etc.).
What I’ve found is that when I get to the revision process and discover a scene that’s too short, I haven’t fully developed the elements of the scene. Scene development is a complex topic. Books have been written about it. It’s impossible to cover the topic in a single blog post, but I hope I’ve answered the question I posed.
Do you struggle with scene length? Are you finding your scenes are too short? Too long? What are you doing about it?
The quest for von Braun provides some of the key scenes in Michael Chabon’s brilliant memoir-style novel, Moonglow. Chabon billed Moonglow as a memoir, but he slyly noted in an Author’s Note, “I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” Where the author took liberties, Chabon wrote, they were taken “with due abandon.”
How much of the novel is fact as opposed to fiction is immaterial. Moonglow raises troubling questions about the horrors of war and the scars it leaves on those who survive, as well as the enduring power of love, and the slippery fault line between truth and memory. The main character, Chabon’s grandfather, is never assigned a name, nor is Chabon’s grandmother. The grandfather, a richly developed character, delivers his story in the form of a deathbed confession to “Mike Chabon.” Painkillers have loosened his grandfather’s tongue and his lurid stories range from his time in the Army to how he met his wife, from a brief stint in prison to his obsession with space travel.
What is most poignant about this story is the enduring relationship between Mike’s grandfather and his grandmother, a bond formed out of the wreckage of World War II. His grandmother, a most sympathetic character, was a refugee whose family fled their home during World War II and perished in the Holocaust. There are numerous references to her horrific childhood. As a pregnant teen-age girl (Mike’s mother), she was taken in by Carmelite nuns in France. She later emigrated to America, but she remained damage by the unspeakable horrors she witnessed. Even the deep bonds of her family and her husband’s enduring love for her could not keep her demons away.
A major theme of Moonglow is the double-edged nature of the human condition. The moon serves as a symbol of magic, and yet it also is a dark, mysterious place. Similarly, von Braun is widely credited with playing a pivotal role in the historic first moon landing in July of 1969, but he also developed the V-2 missile for the Nazis. As the grandfather, himself an engineer, reflects on von Braun, “The poor bastard! He had built a ship to loft us to the very edge of heaven, and they had used it as a messenger of hell.”
The grandfather had enlisted in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1941. He was arrested for his part in a bizarre scheme to blow up the Francis Scott Key Bridge, but a member of the military brass, who recognized his talents, arranged for a light sentence and recruited him as part of a team that would go after von Braun. The extended series of scenes where the grandfather’s unit hunts down von Braun contains some of Chabon’s best writing. His unit ends up in a ravaged village in Nordhausen, where the grandfather learns of the secret rocket factory and the horrors of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Refugees were forced to work on the V-2 rocket under cruel conditions. A total of 20,000 died of starvation, malnutrition and mistreatment before the U.S. Army liberated the camp in 1945.
When an aging priest leads grandfather to the rocket site and a trove of documents, he abandons his quest for von Braun. The grandfather never forgave von Braun for what he saw as his duplicity in the deaths of 20,000 victims who labored under cruel conditions at the rocket factory. Years later, when man landed on the moon, the space-obsessed grandfather walked out of the room rather than witness the historic event on TV.
On April 26, I had the privilege to attend Pulitzer-winner Richard Russo’s presentation for WEST HARTFORD READS! – an annual reading initiative encouraging town residents to read the works of one notable author.
Like many of his characters, Russo came across as an amiable everyman, a product of a dying New York mill town of Gloversville, where he grew up and which served as the inspiration for his settings. He read an essay entitled, “The Boss in Bulgaria,” which will be published in a book of essays planned for this year.
The essay described his visit to Bulgaria for a writer’s conference. After his original flight was cancelled he pondered returning to his home in Maine. He changed his mind when he was told by a conference staffer that he was the star of the event. He eventually arrived at the conference and discovered the aspiring writers in the former Soviet bloc country, where freedom of speech was repressed, carried a burning hunger to learn all they could about writing. “What if you hadn’t been allowed a voice your entire life?” he said. “Do you go directly to the big subject–what life was like under a totalitarian regime?” Which begged the bigger question for new writers. “What if there’s no ‘you’ yet? What if your voice has yet to be invented?”
Returning to his room each night, Russo would hear singing coming from the courtyard below. First, it would be songs in the native language of the Bulgarian writers. As the night wore on, they would sing American rock and pop tunes. He recalled hearing that familiar chorus from an old Bon Jovi song, “We’re halfway there. Living on a prayer!”
Later, as a televised interview panel show with Russo was coming to a close, the house band struck up the Bruce Springsteen song, “Land of Hopes and Dreams.” A huge fan of Springsteen, Russo was touched by the thoughtfulness of the gesture. He concluded his presentation by saying writers must believe they are halfway there. Writers must believe they can catch that train, “the one that carries their hopes and literary dreams.”
During the question-and-answer session, Russo described how his writing process has evolved over the years. “As a younger writer, I would start each book with an unwarranted optimism that the story was going to work. I would begin with a decent handle on who the main character is and what is the problem he needed to solve. If I run into a problem, I figure I can fix it in the revision process. I used to have that belief to get to the end of the story as quickly as I could and then revise and revise until it worked. I never worried about awkward sentences.”
Now, he said, at the age of 67, Russo has become more of a “language oriented” writer. “Now I have this terror that, what if I get to the end and I can’t fix everything?…I’m so much more anxious as a writer now. I spend long hours revising earlier in the process than I ever did earlier in my career.”
Russo said he begins writing in the morning and writes for several hours each day, seven days a week. “If it sounds like drudgery, it is,” he said.
The author of eight novels, two collections of stories, and Elsewhere, a memoir, Russo’s latest work, Everybody’s Fool, was published in 2016. It is a sequel to Nobody’s Fool, which was adapted into a film. Russo co-wrote the 1998 film, Twilight, with the director Robert Benton, and in 2005 wrote Niall Johnson’s film, Keeping Mum, which stars Rowan Atkinson. In 2002, Russo received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel Empire Falls, which, like Nobody’s Fool, was adapted to film.