Memorable people on the page
other day as I finished reading Zadie Smith’s novel, On Beauty,
I could feel one of the main characters, Kiki, take up residence
in my head. She’s in there right next to Elizabeth Bennett,
Scarlett O’Hara, the Wife of Bath, and Charlotte (yes, the
writer and web-spinner).
one of the greatest pleasures of reading is meeting people who are
memorable, despite being fictional. What makes them so real for
us? I asked novelist Margot Livesey, herself the creator of people
who tend to live with readers long after the final page of Banishing
Verona, Eva moves the Furniture, The Missing World, or her other
novels or short stories.
“I think a lot about character,” says Livesey, who recalls
growing up under the spell of the great 19th century characters
like Heathcliff and Jane Eyre. “One of the reasons I love
to write fiction is that it gives me a different way of looking
at the world. I might find myself thinking, ‘Verona wouldn’t
This day, as we sit in her living room, surrounded by paintings
by her husband, artist Eric Garnick, we talk about how a story’s
characters can be so real that a reader can identify across lines
of gender, race, age, and other details.
Livesey says, “It’s a mixture of craft and luck. I know
things I can do, the telling detail, to put a character on the page.”
We talk, too, about how part of the “real-ness” has
to be the all too human presence of flaws. Livesey points to Chekhov’s
The Lady with the Dog as such a story.
“The fact that Chekhov describes his two characters with such
confidence, presenting their strengths and weaknesses, their virtues
and vices so openly--there is something very persuasive about that.
We don’t want our characters to be so saintly. We respond
to characters that have flaws. We empathize with their struggle.
Many of the great memorable characters are on some kind of journey,
large or small. That seems to elicit our sympathy.
“With that kind of well-drawn character, we feel their physical
presence, we get a sense of their voice, their language. We watch
our own lives and our friends’ lives unfold and we see how
people talk in real life. It’s a slow process. Fiction changes
the nature of time.”
According to Livesey, watching fictional characters over time gives
us a chance to learn about them, get to know them, understand them,
even develop expectations about how they will behave.
Livesey’s own stories tend to start with an occasion--someone
finding an abandoned baby, as in Criminals, or sustaining a memory-erasing
accident, as in The Missing World. Next, she says, she needs to
look for a character to inhabit that situation and to figure out
where the story is going. -then what she calls a period of negotiation:
maybe a character has become too likable or too unlikable.
“I usually have a destination in mind,” she says. With
Criminals, for example, she wanted the story to end with a Solomon-like
judgment; with Banishing Verona, she was interested in exploring
an unlikely love story.
Talking with Livesey, I am glad to learn it is not only readers
who miss the characters when the last page is finished. She tells
me about procrastinating a little before writing the final chapter
of Banishing Verona
“I loved being in (the characters’) company and I knew
that when I was done, my relationship with them would change.”