Guest Robin Antalek on Raising (Writing) Good Characters

Guest Robin Antalek on Raising (Writing) Good Characters

[Robin Antalek, in her debut novel The Summer We Fell Apart, (Facebook) introduces the reader to four main characters — all siblings in a dysfunctional family. In today’s guest post she describes the toil and toll required to birth, develop, and then let each one go out into the world…even beyond the book’s pages.]

During the process of writing The Summer We Fell Apart I was a mess. These characters and their lives were so demanding of my emotional well-being (including some very non-hygienic periods – ick –sorry) that I nearly had nothing left for my daughters’, my husband, and my friends … you name it, I ignored it could have been my motto. In many ways it resembled those first few months of motherhood when I survived on instinct and very little else. Then and only then I was as in tune with my infant daughter (now 19) in the most basic of ways, our cyclical routine of: sleep, eat, burp, diaper, hardly varied from hour to hour and day to day for months on end. I existed only for her nourishment and needs.

Except here – in my fictional world — I could re-write the scene from the day before. I could change a word, delete a paragraph, erase a conversation, and alter the mood, all without excess emotional attachment. Or could I?

As the characters grew in my head, on the page, and into the story, there were things so intrinsic that even if I wanted to – I couldn’t mess with. When I tried to re-write their lives it just came up false and I knew – I knew – that no matter what I would have to allow them to be who they were meant to be for better or worse. As a parent and now as a writer, this was one of the hardest lessons I ever learned: your baby (characters) had to fail, it was inevitable and you had to stand by and let them as much as you wanted to run ahead screaming danger and pointing out the bad guys.

The writing life – creating character, plot, theme and story is not so unlike those early days of motherhood. As I was submerged in the world of my newborn – so was I in the “newborn-ness” (so not a word – forgive me) of Amy, George, Finn and Kate Haas. I only worked on one character and their section of the novel at a time – so through the course of the book I metaphorically gave birth four times – and if you think they didn’t demand all my attention – including stealing some serious sleep – you would be wrong. As if I raised quadruplets, this crew was in my face the entire two years it took from conception to birth.

Because of my process, or maybe in spite of, who knows, readers identify strongly with these fictional siblings. And two of the questions I always get from readers whether it’s a book club visit or via mail is: who is your favorite? And, are they all okay? I have to answer in all honesty that some of the siblings were easier to be around than the others at times (as are my own beautiful girls’) – but I am hard pressed to choose a favorite. It would be tantamount to choosing between my children. The answer to the second question? Well that gives me chills every time – in the asking and the answer. It’s what all of us as parents hope for our own children: they are okay, they are making their way in the world. They will figure it out, there’s hope. Always, always, hope.

The Summer We Fell Apart has taken on a life of its own – as have Amy, Kate, George and Finn. And in the words of their mother, Marilyn, “…it is more than I ever imagined.”

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Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away a copy of Trish Ryan’s latest memoir, A Maze of Grace in a random drawing to anyone who comments only on this specific post, Trish Ryan and A Maze of Grace. Comments left on other posts during the week are not entered into the contest. The deadline is Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winner to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to possibly claim your book.

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