Guest post by Leo Brent Robillard
Diane Schoemperlen’s “How to Write a Serious Novel About Love” offers the following advice:
“Begin with a man and a woman. Many famous novels begin with this familiar combination. Although it may at first strike you as rather trite, in fact, once you get going, you will find that it presents a vast array of possibilities.”
Narrated with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, Schoemperlen’s account nonetheless provides readers – and burgeoning writers – with keen insight into the writing process. Even the tidbit above is more enlightening than one might first imagine: novels begin with characters.
Characters. Not plots. Not themes. Characters.
As a reader, I want someone in whom I can invest. I want someone sympathetic (and I do not mean likeable) upon whom I can depend to carry me through the next two, three, or four hundred pages. As a writer, I want to provide my readers with the same.
I find it difficult to pinpoint the exact moment a character is born. Like fossils, I think they lay in hibernation, fully formed and waiting for that moment when the earth in her stirring spits them up, ready to take on the world.
No I don’t. Not really. I’m not that esoteric.
My characters float past me like jetsam. I bump up against some of them only once and then they are gone. I travel alongside others for years, riding the same current. They are the people who populate my life. Sometimes they are stolen whole-heartedly from a single person. More often they are composites – the gestures of a girl I once taught, coupled with the verbal tick of a cousin, and the eyes of my mother.
People have recognized themselves in my books. Or at least they think that they have. Because ultimately my characters are fictional. They are crafted. They serve and dictate a story. A friend’s ill-temper and momentary pettiness may be recognizable to that same friend. Dare I say she might even find their inclusion in a novel offensive? But characters are the sum of carefully chosen traits. For that reason, they are exclusive and not entirely representative of the living being from whom they are inspired.
Novels – particularly my most recent, The Road To Atlantis – are hypothetical. They are the great “what if?” I plot the characters’ journeys meticulously from the outset, but they continue to surprise me. Even when they end up exactly where I wanted them to be, their methods of arrival can veer off in unexpected ways. Atlantis is as close to autobiography as I have ever come. By that I mean I have drawn heavily on myself and on members of my closest family – the good, the bad, and the ugly. And yet, beyond the opening chapter, the events of this book have never occurred to me.
I simply asked myself, “what if?” And the characters provided the answer.
About Leo Brent Robillard
Leo Brent Robillard is an award-winning author and educator. His novels include Leaving Wyoming, which was listed in Bartley’s Top Five in the Globe and Mail for Best First Fiction; Houdini’s Shadow, which was translated into Spanish; and, most recently, Drift. In 2011, he received the Premier’s Award for Teacher of the Year. He lives in Eastern Ontario with his wife and two children.
About The Road to Atlantis
Following the coast on their summer vacation, the Henrys stop at the beach to break up the monotony of their road trip. Matty and Nat build castles in the sand as Anne and David take turns minding the children. A moment of distraction, a blink of the eye, and the life they know is swept away forever.
Like shipwrecks lost at sea, each member of the family sinks under the weight of their shared tragedy. All seems lost but life is long. There are many ways to heal a wound, there are many ways to form a family, and as the Henrys discover, there are many roads to Atlantis.