Where do these characters come from and where will they take me?

By Catherine Zebrowski

Growing up at the top of Deadhorse Hill back in the 60’s there was not much to do but read, write, and daydream—and I did plenty of all three.  My mother, who had immigrated from the West Coast of Ireland, told us stories and sang us songs to keep us still when we were having a bath or the kitchen floor was drying — a mother will do whatever works and the stories worked for me.  I blame my mother for my early reading as well.  I would beg her to read me the funnies (comics in some parts of the country) in the Sunday Paper and she would read just one and say her voice was ‘tired’. Mind you, she was in her later forties and had four other young children to contend with and entertain. So, I had to learn to read if I was to get the jokes.

Characters were everywhere in the stories and songs.  Creatures came out and danced beneath the moon, children fell down wells, animals came alive, and there was Clancy, an Irishman with a new haircut and a wild temper.   These characters had many adventures and dilemmas: a girl left her doll out in the fields overnight and it was gone never to be seen again, another went out into the woods and got lost—a family of hedgehogs took her in and she lived many weeks underground.

Like most writers I love creating characters.  It’s wonderful that though I am a grown up I still have imaginary friends.  Some of them I have lived with for longer than actual people I consider friends.  What many readers don’t know is that even though you should be the puppet-master, after all you are the one doing the writing, sometimes they escape your plan and you have to follow them down their own path. This can get tricky, creating excitement, frustration, and adventure for the writer.  You know what you want the next plot point to be but now here is this character interfering—not reacting the way you had planned when you left your writing desk yesterday with a plot idea to mull over until this morning.

Still, I love writing about complicated characters.  Though I know way ahead of time many of the situations they will be confronted with I really don’t know how they will react.  One of the characters in my novel, Sleepwalking Backwards, was especially hard to predict because in the first draft she was kind of a peripheral character to her daughter and she did not seem to have too much depth.  However, when I rewrote I made her a major character and she is the voice, or lack of voice, in every other chapter.

I say lack of voice because in her chapters, which take place in the summer of 1978, she has suffered a trauma and is unable to speak for psychological reasons. . Those around her, who are trying to help her, don’t realize that she also has no memory of the last several months.  So her chapters are silent except for her thoughts and bewilderment as she tries to piece together events from the past and bring herself back to the present. On the inside, she is very reactive to everything around her, but, to those around her she seems totally rigid and devoid of emotion—her attempt to hold back the floodgates.  I had to slowly unfold her story in a non-traditional way.

The other chapters –between March of 1999 and March of 2000—in the daughter’s voice were somewhat easier but still, Amanda has some strange quirks I had to follow because, although she was only turning a year old in the summer of 1978, she senses something happened in her family but also senses that she shouldn’t ask questions.  She prefers to lose herself in her own imaginings based on a love of math and an obsession with Astronomy.

I guess I have always liked soliloquies like Browning’s  poem My Last Duchess where a voice unravels slowly revealing  what is really going on to the reader in such  a  subtle and  ironic way that the characters don’t even realize what they have revealed.  Another piece that uses this method really expertly is a novella by Thomas Wolfe called I Have A Thing to Tell You.      

An interesting aspect of writing fiction and creating characters is that they can be very different from you. There may be parts of the author in a character but you can experiment in thinking like someone totally different from yourself.  Of course, this brings up more problems.  Sometimes your characters may have had some similar experiences to yours but their politics may be different.  For instance, my character from the seventies went to Worcester State College at the same time I did and seems to have some similar experiences but she is more conservative  politically than I was as a young woman. For instance, she is handed a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves on the first day of classes in the fall of 1970 which is what happened to me. Unlike me who became friends with the person who gave me the book that first day, she is suspicious of being given a free book, especially by a feminist.   So the politics of the character are not necessarily the politics of the author—that would end up being more about pushing a political agenda then being true to the characters and the story.

With all these dilemmas that characters present to challenge the writer as the story unravels it’s still my opinion that a good story is all about the voice of a character seeing the world and solving problems in their own unique way.


About the Author

Catherine Zebrowski grew up right at the top of dead horse hill in Leicester, Mass. Her imagination was stirred at an early age by the stories she was told by her mother who grew up on the west coast of Ireland. After graduating from Worcester State, she lived in Dublin, Ireland for a year and was enriched by her studies at University College and the many experiences she had over there.  She has had two chapbooks of poetry published and her poems have appeared in the Worcester Review, The Monadnock Reader and SURVIVE, an anthology through Northwoods Press.  An unfinished novel, Maura,   was a semi-finalist for the novel- in- progress Heekam Award and her first ever fiction accolade came as an honorable mention for a short , short in Alfred Hitchcock Magazines’ Mysterious Photograph Contest.  Her first novel, Sleepwalking Backwards, is set to be published in 2017 through TouchPoint Press.

Learn more about Catherine on her website and Facebook

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