I just finished reading The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. My writing group recommended it to me because it is like Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, (which incidentally won the Pulitzer) in that it is a series of loosely strung-together short stories that feature the same people in them. The novel I’m working on writing will hopefully function the same way. (Ambitious, I know)
Whenever I read something, I learn. I’m a writer; my job is to read read read so that my own writing shines. Here are a few lessons I learned today:
- If done properly, you can tell a lot about a character in one, succinct sentence. “The editors gave him a tryout as a proofreader, and he had a knack for it – finally, arcane knowledge and pedantry came in handy.” From this, you know that the guy was formerly rootless, fell into a good job and made a life for himself. You also know something about his personality with the quirks mentioned, and that brings up a host of stereotypes, which is good. Even if the stereotypes are not 100% right, they give the reader an idea.
- Two people can be in the same room talking to each other and have completely different conversations – almost like they’re not speaking the same language – or speaking “at” each other. In the chapter about Craig Menzies, he and his live-in-girlfriend Annika are NOT fighting about her affair. She’s talking about how she can’t bear that she humiliated him, and he’s talking about how she shouldn’t have applied for a patent for him without his permission. They misunderstand each other’s needs, but in one, beautifully conveyed conversation.
- Sometimes the other character in the story – not the main one – is the method for the personality of the main character to show itself. Winston Cheung is in Egypt vying for a freelance stringer job. A seasoned reporter comes in and takes total advantage of him. Beyond hating the seasoned reporter, the reader also gets a sense of Winston as a very fearful, easily trod-upon person.
- You can grow to like a character over the course of several interactions with her, even if you get a bad initial impression. Initially I thought Ruby was horrid, but then I grew to understand her as she touched the lives of several characters, and I grew rather fond of her.
- Not every story has a happy ending. Sometimes the endings are sad, and even characters who you like – despite their ridiculous faults – can get a comeuppance. I didn’t particularly like Abbey, but I rooted for her, and in the end, she gets hers.
- Sometimes the quirkiest characters are the best ones!
- I really love it when a character does something unexpectedly kind for another character.
- The best part of the multiple points of view is the chance to see a character in a different light. To you, the reader, a character has certain personality traits. But when you see that character from the point of view of someone else – daughter, mother, etc. – then the character becomes richer, fuller, more diverse. His or her actions can be unexpected or different from the varying point of view than when the reader is in his or her head.
There are other things I learned today from just finishing this one book, but I’m going to leave it at that for now. I hope I can take these lessons and apply them.