Friday, April 6, 2012

Busted!—Kelly Simmons Caught Featuring an Emotionally Troubled Character

In her novel Standing Still, Kelly Simmons writes of a woman who has panic disorder. Contemporary fiction and memoir are full of such emotionally troubled characters, and their story arcs can be most satisfying (brooding, wounded hero, anyone?).

Yet since the novelist’s primary goal is to entertain and/or enlighten, pitfalls abound in such an arc. You will not want to fray your reader’s nerves with your character’s annoying, repetitive characteristics any more than you’ll want to use your exceptional skills to drown the reader in the biological muck and mire of her troubled realities. To do so would be to invite your reader to set down your book.

Kelly’s protagonist, Claire, has had experiences that cause her to succumb to the grip of irrational fears. Here are some useful techniques that helped Kelly deftly handle this arc.

She gives voice to the reader’s concern by allowing another character to express exasperation. After a troubling doctor’s appointment, Claire sits in the parking garage, shaking, holding up traffic behind her. Her toddler provides commentary.
“What, Jamie?”
“You’re embarrassing me.”
Then she allows her character to respond to this pronouncement in a way to which any of us can relate—as a parent:
“What a big word,” I said. “What a big, grown-up word.”

She creates psychic distance. This can be tricky to do, especially in first person. But Kelly has given Claire a background in news reporting, and the reader gets the sense that Claire is reporting about herself rather than spitting up emotional bile. Here she investigates sounds in her house:
…Finally I make out the contours of His face and eyes, human skin among the plush bears and cloth clowns and nylon-lashed dolls that line Jamie’s floor.
I shake but do not gasp, do not scream. Of course He is there; I expected Him, I heard Him coming for years, each night when Sam left me alone with my obsessions.

She gives her character a very real adversary to fight. She imbues her foe with archetypal power by capitalizing the pronoun that will be His only name. As His goals become apparent and even relatable, His actions seem no less predictable. What we can’t name or predict seems worthy of our fear as well, a fact that binds the reader to Claire.

She offers her character redemption. Early. From p. 13, this excerpt from the inciting incident promises that Claire is worth sticking with:
He moves, but not toward me. Holds a finger to His lips, a warning, and glides soundlessly, on cat burglar feet, to Jamie’s canopy bed.
“No,” I cry, but it comes out mangled and small. A croak.

I drop to my knees and utter the only fearless words I have ever spoken:
“Take me,” I say. “Take me instead.”

She allows the disorder itself to give us a new way to look at our lives.
Those are my last words: My purse is in the bedroom. Not “take care of your sisters,” not “I love you.” If He kills me now, that’s the deathbed utterance. Later, I’ll obsess over my bad judgment. Does she even know how to use the cell phone in the zippered pocket? Is “send” one of her spelling words?

She allows both poignant detail and her sense of humor to shine through.
I look over my shoulder. Jamie is aglow from the nightlight. My daughter, my beautiful, solemn first girl. The blue scissors sit on her desk with her reading camp homework. She has tears in her eyes, but doesn’t scream, or speak, or follow. My youngest child, Jordan, a small tiger of a girl, might have leapt on His back. My middle daughter, Julia, ever vigilant, the last one to fall asleep, could have split atoms with her scream. It seems He had chosen the right one.

She moves plot along even during a panic attack. Bound in the backseat of the car, Claire does more than pant and sweat. She frets over how the kidnapper knew her husband was away, in a way that reveals much about her life:
Couldn’t anyone watching me know? Count cars in the driveway, watch Sam’s golf magazines pile up on the marble counter, see one person picking up twigs after the storm. I had five laundry baskets, six garbage cans, three daughters, two hands. I carried in dry cleaning, rotisserie chicken, and false cheerfulness at dinnertime. I doled out the father tickles the girls needed at night. And I wonder: Couldn’t any thief, kidnapper, or murderer watching me juggle the mail, the groceries, and a briefcase as I wipe the cat’s feet and put juice into sippy cups recognize me as a woman whose husband was gone? That was the kind of zoom-lens the FBI needed: Look, there, go in tight…see that, Lieutenant? That woman is about to detonate all over her recyclables!

She gives Claire a physical scar that suggests her problem began with a very real trauma—and then delivers on that promise brilliantly near the end of the book.

She creates symbols that tells us Claire is having an attack so we don’t have to relive the biology of its onset. “The shaking begins again”—we know what that means. Or Claire will employ a therapy technique of grounding herself by pinching skin on the inside of her arm. ’Nuff said.

Even within her novel’s tight one-week frame, Kelly offers Claire realistic healing. At the end we sense that she is strong enough to face life head-on, despite her imperfections. Isn’t that what we all want?

Could incorporating a few of these techniques help endear your troubled protagonist to your reader?

For more about my experience reading Standing Still, read a previous Busted! post here.

Kathryn Craft is an author of women's fiction and memoir who specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. I really liked the excerpts, Kathryn, which so perfectly illustrate your points and principles. "Protagonists with Problems" (capital Ps) has become almost a trope of modern fiction, but your excerpts show deft handling that helps any reader identify with the character.

    For my part, I have persisted in tapping to a different drumbeat. My protagonists are without major psychiatric disorders or dramatic character flaws--just people like us or our neighbors, ordinary folks caught up in extraordinary messes.

    Still, readers seem to like that, maybe because, as with themselves or their real-life neighbors, ordinary need not equal boring.

    --Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)

  2. Great examples. I'm always learning.

  3. Hey Larry, what's this? Your characters aren't all screwed up? Heh-heh. I hear you, it does seem common today. The beauty is that dysfunction can give your character a unique way of looking at the world, if you make good use of that. The downside is that it can be harder to gain reader buy-in. Thus, this post. Thanks for your comment. Always nice chatting with you!

    And LM, thanks for stopping by!

  4. My protagonists always seem to be oblivious to their annoying characteristics ... hmmm, I wonder where they could get that from?

  5. Christopher: Haha. But the question is, are YOU blind to their annoying characteristics? When it comes to this kind of character, there's nothing better than an advance reader who is blunt enough to say, "Dude. Why would I want to hang out with this chick for 300 pages?"

  6. As I read this, Kathryn, I suddenly envisioned the perfect opening for the second novel in my series - the one I seldom have time to work on. I started it several months ago, and the present opening scene works - but it lacks the power your post inspired this morning. The new opening scene will address the desperate situation of a very troubled character (not the protagonist but a primary player) from the first novel, and the present first chapter will become the second.

    Fantastic post - Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  7. You're welcome, Linda! A friend of mine, prolific author Katherine Ramsland, just wrote a book called SNAP! about those moments of clarity when all comes together. She says we hold the problems in mind, then through our reading and experiences, create a "brain stew" that causes our mind to see new relationships—then the Snap! occurs.

    I love it when that happens. Glad I could offer one more ingredient to your brain stew!

  8. I do love stew, Kathryn, both the literal and figurative kinds.

  9. It's great the way you break the methods down like that, so an author can learn how to use certain techniques.

    Morgan Mandel

  10. What wonderful, unique techniques to use in a challenging plot...from these excerpts I can feel them drawing me into the character. I feel for this woman through these different lenses vs. her telling us direct and then leading us to a possible unlikable character.

  11. Donna: This book is so taut and spare that every single word contributes to the effect you described. It's such a great read: Read it once to gobble it up, and again to savor the language and craft!

  12. In addition to the nuance of craft, which can be so difficult to teach, this strikes me as yet another example of an author having the sense and the courage to write what she knows.

    Reaching this level of intimacy with a reader requires a writer to reflect deeply into the scary places that reveal the most identifiable parts of the human condition, which for most of us, bears evidence of, at the very least, some chips and dings if not downright scars.

    When characters reveal that level of genuine, real-world truth, and takes a reader to a a very personal, shared place, it's a beautiful thing.

  13. Kathryn, your perspective and comments on my novel made me so happy -- to be heard and appreciated by an "ideal reader" is the ultimate gift. Thank you for this and for introducing me to your book club. And -- the vodka will probably deserve its own post!

  14. Really, her toddler uses big words like that? I'm ambivalent about this sort of dialogue. I just read a YA novel that had a four-year-old character sounding ten years older. National Book Award winner, too. I spend too much time reading children's stories and submissions, I guess. All the voices have to sound right and age-appropriate. Now I'm going back to read the rest of your post, Kathryn. ;)

  15. Have you read her latest, The Bird House?

  16. Five months to write and 3 1/2 years to edit! The author video at the link above is great!

  17. Don, thanks for stopping by. Your comments speak to a deeper level of writing preparedness, one that I fear that I can't fine-tune with a craft lecture: the willingness to be vulnerable by tapping into our own veins of inner conflict for the blood to power our stories. Beautifully put. Thank you.

  18. Kelly: Thank you, for your beautiful books.

    For others, a word of explanation: I re-read Standing Still because it was our neighborhood book club pick, and since Kelly lives less than an hour away, she was willing to come meet with us. It was a real treat for our members. As a gift, I gave her the bottle of Chocolate Raspberry Stolichnaya, which I had fallen for (not quite literally) after a taste testing at our local liquor store. They'd served it in chocolate cups you could eat afterwards! What's not to love?!

  19. Dani: First, mea culpa: I looked on Wikipedia and "toddler" apparently means 1-3. This character was 3 AND A HALF, which at that age makes a difference, lol. But she was quite young.

    I do think it matters that this book is for adults. But I guess it also depends on your experience. This was a first child, and many first children are quite verbal. At that age my firstborn could sing the entree Raffi song library and use the words of his lyrics in sentences. One night he wowed us at dinner with a snippet from the TV news: "So I hear that things aren't going so well in Azerbaijan." I had to look it up.

    So I both appreciated and loved the way this child saw things more clearly than the mother caught up in her own drama—as kids so often do. Sounds like a topic worthy of its own post, as I'd love to hear what others have to say on the matter. Thanks for your comment!

    And yes, I read The Bird House, also a wonderful novel!

  20. Dani: Kelly explained that due to staff turnover, her book went through four editors once it got to Atria, each with a different vision. OY!

  21. I had a hyper-verbal firstborn daughter too . . . and even four picky editors didn't complain about that toddler's sentence, ha! (Don't get me started about some of the other things they dinged me on -- THAT could be a whole other book.)

    Thanks everyone for your comments!

  22. This sounds like a very intense book. I'd like to read it.


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