Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why Emily Dickinson? Protagonists We Love

(Emily Dickinson, circa 1863)

Ever wonder where the fascinating characters in your favorite novels come from? Protagonists in particular can sometimes pique our interest especially when we see ourselves reflected in these characters, or even better, when we want to become these characters. It’s an exercise in vicariousness that readers live by.

Whenever I read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I always put myself in Finn's shoes, or lack thereof, and imagine what it would be like to be Huck Finn. This is the real reason we read. We want to become someone else for a time. It’s the perfect escape into another world—-another time and place. We want to live another life in someone else’s shoes and walk around in their skin, as Atticus Finch would say, which begs the question, who was the star in To Kill a Mockingbird anyway?

Forgive my digression, but it seems to me it was Scout who led the way in the book and in the movie version, although Atticus, played by Gregory Peck, was clearly in the lead role, it was his daughter, Scout, who the story centered around for the most part. Having seen the movie as a young boy, I naturally identified with the young, curious, and feisty tomboy that dominated most every scene.

That’s the same effect I tried capturing when I created my main character, Virginia Mae Mercy in A Death for Beauty. First, I thought, Virginia had to be a complex woman. A confident woman with many personality quirks, but also, someone with a vulnerable disposition. Because what good is a strong main character without faults and insecurities?

For the most part, I modeled Virginia after both, a common and uncommon woman of the mid nineteenth century. Modern women can certainly identify with Virginia’s feminine traits, her needs and wants as a woman who takes care of herself and someone who aspires to be something more than she is. A woman in search of herself. I think most women can relate to that.

Virginia’s flip side is less predictable, however. While she often comes across as surefooted and resolute, in the same breath, she questions everything around her. She’s never certain of anything. This wavering is what makes Virginia human. It’s what readers empathize with above all else and what they connect with. In essence, it’s the one trait, which drives her character forth and propels readers into the story. They want to care and they want to follow her along her journey.

Multifaceted characters are what makes stories resonate and can sometimes take readers by surprise, but again, that’s what readers enjoy and what they expect from interesting characters. Aside from Virginia’s quirky personality, I had to tap into a voice that fit. At first, during my research for part two of the story, where the Sioux tribe absorbs Virginia into their culture, I couldn’t get the voice of Fanny Kelly—-the woman in the true story—-out of my head so Virginia sounded very much like Fanny. But once I decided to include Emily Dickinson’s poetry, for some reason, I thought Emily Dickinson’s tone of voice, her manner of writing, was more fitting and almost inescapable from my point of view.

The rhythm of Dickinson’s poetry (featured in chapter openings) was more than an accompaniment to the writing, it was for me, a melody of words that set the tone for the whole novel, so giving this voice to Virginia was as natural as including the poetry itself.

I think I can safely admit that Virginia Mae Mercy’s personality has shades of Emily Dickinson. They certainly share a fierce and witty style all their own and writing that kind of dialogue was a lot of fun.

“I love you Darlin, let’s go. Birdy would never forgive me. Besides if he were here he’d knocked the old croaker galley-west.”

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