“Don’t treat your characters like marionettes!”

The driver of the shuttle van rolled down the window and spoke rapidly in French.  Shortly after the answering squawk from the speaker phone, the gate swung open slowly, untouched by human hands.  Intellectually, I knew that a small motor was performing the work, but the grounds of the Abbaye de Royoument had already begun to work their magic.  The charm only increased as I reached my corner room with its three feet thick walls.  But I confess, the anachronism of a late 1990’s bathroom made me smile.  

When I reached the salon for the opening cocktails, I surreptitiously confirmed that the Lynne who had taken the shuttle van from the train station with me was indeed Lynne Reid Banks, author of “The Indian in the Cupboard.” She had only given her first name while we were waiting.  I can’t remember when I learned that she was going to be the one giving me a critique of the first chapter of my YA mystery.  At that time, its working title was THE WINE ROAD.  

I confess that I found Ms. Banks to be a tad intimidating with her long publishing record and her theatrical style.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that she’d been part of some prestigious British acting company.  She projected so beautifully that I think that she could have filled the main meeting room with sound without the microphone.  

Eventually, it was my turn to slip away from one of the presentations for my meeting.  Ms. Banks opened by saying something along these lines: “I read a lot of manuscripts for events like these, but this was one of the few times that I wanted to keep reading.”  Now maybe she was just being kind and said that to every writer as a way to calm that person down at the beginning of a twenty-minute meeting.  But she liked that there was something at stake.  Indeed, for all she knew, my main character’s father could have murdered her mother many, many years ago.  

I knew that the opening scene was pretty static with two people talking across a table.  But this didn’t upset Ms. Banks.  In fact, she said that she liked the way that my two characters discussed a third character.  This was a technique that she was often used in the theater to indicate the importance of someone.  

I always bring at least one important piece of writing advice back from a conference with me.  In this case it was the following: “Don’t treat your characters like marionettes, Kristin!  Feel what they’re feeling when they feel it.”   

And really, this is truly excellent advice.  My failures as a writer have usually come when I didn’t really think about what my character was going through on an emotional level.  Some of my breakthroughs have come when I was really putting myself in the moment.  And yes, sometimes this triggers intense stress and even crying.  But if I can’t move myself to tears, what makes me think that I’m going to be able to engage a reader’s emotions?

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