There’s a story told about award-winning author and columnist E. B. White, who brought many lovable characters to the written page. When the audio book for his classic, Charlotte’s Web, was being recorded, White himself was the reader. During the taping, he had to read one passage seventeen times before he could get through it without being overwhelmed with emotion. The words that broke him were these: “and Charlotte died alone.”
I heard this story when I was searching for a publisher for my first book. It was a grueling process both for me and for my husband, who had a front row seat to every disappointing play in the torturous game of novel publishing. On one particularly difficult day, after sharing my latest defeat, he turned to me and asked why it was so important to me that the book be published. “You’ve written a novel that you’re proud of, you’ve grown, and you’ve enjoyed the process. It seems you’ve already accomplished a lot.” I also already had a fulfilling career as a psychotherapist, which was what had inspired the book in the first place. I’d never truly considered why I wanted this so desperately, but I felt my eyes pool. “Their stories need to be told,” I said. “Jasmine, Tessa, Lakisha; they’re deserving, their voices need to be heard.” In that moment, I understood how E. B. White felt about Charlotte, the fictional spider that lived first in his imagination, then on the written page, and finally, in all of our hearts. I wanted that for my characters too.
There may be any number of ways to approach the creation of rich, appealing, and lovable characters. For me, the process seems akin to the way I frame working with my therapy patients. As a clinical social worker, I spend my days sitting with people who are troubled. They often feel wronged or mistreated and speak with anger or assign blame. Sometimes they’re steeped in sadness or guilt or self-loathing. While these emotions may easily evoke empathy, do they evoke feelings of love? Um…not so much. But for me, finding love in my heart for my patients is crucial. In her recent bestseller, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb has made it clear that love is too loaded a word to use when referencing our relationships with patients. My definition of love is not the romantic kind, but the type of love that means the other person is good-enough, worthy-enough, and important-enough to care deeply about. It’s a belief that the other person is lovable. They are deserving of our time and compassion. It sends a message that regardless of the past, at this moment, change is possible and they have a partner in the process.
I try to approach my characters in a similar way. I believe that all of them, like all of us, are and must be flawed. The most interesting characters are often deeply flawed or conflicted and make terrible mistakes. We need to love our characters enough to bear witness to their suffering—all of it. There is no getting around this. Life is sewn together with threads of trauma and despair, abandonment and loss, illness and heartache. In real life and on the written page, these are the seeds of growth, the catalysts, the “what now?” moments. When we love patients, we want to thoroughly explore how they make sense of their situations—or don’t. We want to feel what happens in their bodies or see how their view of others shifts. Does he feel like the world is tilting off its axis? Does the sky feel heavy? Is the air too thick to breathe? Does she wish she could vanish into the floorboards? Is there a brief longing to step in front of an oncoming truck? A moment when she considers fleeing or reaching for a blade that’s glinting on the counter? Let’s get in there and get dirty. The more we can help our readers share in the protagonist’s visceral experience, the more invested they’ll be in the outcome. The more we allow this, the more our characters will be known and valued. By delving into their thoughts, their feelings, their emotional triggers and memories, their choices will become understandable to the reader.
When we bring the reader through an interesting plot line while sharing what’s going on in the heart and mind of a character, the journey becomes a personal one. When we love our characters enough to want to know exactly how they are experiencing life, our readers are bound to love them too. That’s when readers say they were rooting for him all the way through or were torn apart at her suffering. That’s when writers like E.B. White and his millions of readers find themselves weeping at the death of imaginary spiders.
What happens next is something important and worth remembering. Yes, once our readers are emotionally invested, we can move and entertain them, but I like to think we can do more. In subtle ways, we can do things like bring people together, make things that are foreign seem understandable, infuse meaning into hardship, and even, possibly, nudge society toward a more positive place. Love is a powerful tool. Regardless of your genre, it’s good to keep it handy in your writer’s toolbox. Certainly our society could use a nudge now and then.
Lisa A. Sturm’s short stories have been published in literary journals such as Tulane Review, Serving House Journal, Mom Egg Review, Willow Review, and Turk’s Head Review, and in an anthology entitled Sisters Born, Sisters Found (Wordforest Press, 2015). She received the Willow Review Fiction Award and the Writer’s Relief Peter K. Hixson Wild Card/Fiction Award for selections from her debut novel, Echoed in My Bones (Twisted Road Publications, 2019), a story inspired by her work as an inner-city psychotherapist. She has degrees from Barnard College and New York University School of Social Work, and is now in private practice in Springfield, New Jersey, where she specializes in Couples Therapy.