Thursday, July 10, 2008

Characters Just Need To Be...Well, Characters

Recently, I was at the Tech Museum with my youngest daughter, when my cell phone rang.
“Hello?” I said while watching my daughter make a computerized metal sculpture of her head.
“Mom?” a voice over the line whispered. It was my loud teenager. He never whispered. “Mom, there are these people here at the house. They say—they say they used to live here. Wyatt or something like that.”
“Of course--” A loud crackling assaulted my ear. .
“Just a minute,” my teenager called out in a cheery voice, obviously talking to our visitors.
The Wyatts had built our house back in the 70's. I was the first to go looking for them five years after we moved here. We wanted to build a downstairs, to fill in the spaces around the stilts our house rested upon. But the county had no record of our foundation. No building plans. We would either have to find the original plans or pay for a dozen inspections. I got on the internet, searched them down, and wrote them a note. Within a week I not only had the plans, but the ORIGINALS with a note saying, “When you're done, please send them back.” I was blown away by their immediate generosity and trust and willingness to help out. They've stopped through a couple of times since then—and I was glad to know they were back.
There was more crackling on the telephone line. “What did you say?” my son whispered.
“They're wonderful people.” I said. “Don't worry.”
Later in the afternoon, when my brain felt as heavy as a metal sculpture from information overload, I dragged my daughter away from some new friends at the museum—she finds friends everywhere-- and on home.
“So, did you have a nice time with the Wyatts?” I asked my teenager.
“Who?” he asked.
“I thought you said the people who lived here stopped--”
“Oh, those guys,” he said. “It was the daughter and son-in-law.”
“Were they just passing through?” I asked.
“I don't know,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, do they live around here?”
“I don't know.”
“Did they have lots of fun stories to tell?”
“I don't know.”
“Well what did you talk about?”
“Talk?” he said.
“You did talk to them, welcome them,” I said, feeling like I was speaking an alien language.“Right?”
“I said to just go ahead and look around and I went back to the office to work on the computer.”
Oh gawd. I was already forming another note in my head—one of please come see us again.
“What were their names?” I asked, looking for a pen.
“Names?” My teenager gave me his sheepish dimpled grin.
“You didn't even ask their names?!”
“They had a black G35,” he said.
“A what?” Was this a new kind of dog?
“You know,“ he said. “A Lexus.”
But of course. A car.
“Too bad it was a four-door,” he lamented. “The two-door is much sicker.”
“You noticed their car, “I said. “But not them?”
He offered that dimpled grin again.
“Too bad your little sister wasn't here,” I said.“She would have given them a tour, and invited them for dinner and a sleepover.”
“Well, at least it wasn't Poaji,” he countered. “He would have called you and put the phone in the middle of the living room—on speaker—so you could talk to them. At least I invited them in.”
Ha! I couldn't stop laughing. I guess there's a multitude of possibilities for the definition of the word “invite.” Depending on the character interpreting that word. Which brings me to the point of this little story.
We often worry about giving our characters lots of baggage—divorce, child abuse, bankruptcy, alcoholism, history of failure, etc, etc. etc. But, as my kids remind me (again and again) the bags need not be filled with too much history for the characters to be so diverse in personality, interests, use of the English language. :) The characters just have to have their own personal wants, interests, goals. They just need to be fresh, believable, possessing their own unique peculiarities. They just need to be, well, characters.

2 comments:

beckylevine said...

I think our sons are related. :)

Lynn said...

It's amazing to me that children from the same parents and growing up in the same household can be so different -- and from the minute they're born (if not before). Thanks for the great insights about creating characters.

What People Are Saying About My Half of the Sky

My Half of the Sky was the BookSense Pick for August 2006 as well as a Forbes Book Club Pick.

"McBurney-Lin tells a wonderfully entertaining story with the traditional coming-of-age theme (which is experienced universally)...weaving in the cultural challenges of growing up in China's rapidly changing social system."
Mary Warpeha, co-President of the Minnesota Chapter of US-China Friendship Association
March 2010


"The novel ...includes many of the tales and the folk ways of the people living in the rural areas of South China, still followed provincially. The story takes place in current China, but could relate the dilemma of any young woman in rural China through the ages."
Kitty Trescott, National Board of the Midwest Region of US-China Friendship Association. March 2010

"A lot is expected of a young Chinese girl. My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin is the story of Li Hui, a young girl who has just achieved marriageable age. She seeks to make the most of herself, but the expectations all around her make it difficult, as her parents seek to use her as pawn to their advantage, she is faced with what she believes to be true love. She must balance career, romance, and family, all to somehow make everyone happy, a tough endeavor indeed. An engaging and entertaining read from beginning to end, "My Half of the Sky" is a poignant tale of the modern Chinese woman, and recommended for community library collections.
--Midwest Book Review November, 2008

“It is a rare women’s novel that sensitively describes the life of a young educated woman in modern-day China in its full complexity, without resorting to unnecessary sentimentalism. Jana’s deep knowledge of the realities of life in China and Singapore makes the reading extra rewarding. In fact, with every new page the novel gets harder to put down and you find yourself gobbling it up before you know it. Finally, the author has given a voice to the Li Hui in all of us, as we struggle for the golden middle between tradition and the modern momentum of our world.”
Isabella Sluzek
Friends of the Museum Book Review 2008
Singapore

You'll be rooting all the way for Li Hui as she struggles, ahead of the curve, to be her own woman in an emerging, modern China. Jana McBurney-Lin's My half of the Sky is a beautiful, witty, touching debut novel.
Thomas B. Sawyer
Head Writer TV Series "Murder, She Wrote,"
Author - The Sixteenth Man


A complex and mesmerizingly original tale of a young Chinese woman caught between the modern world and the pull of her ancient culture. McBurney-Lin’s intimate portrait of China sparks with insights and is peopled with characters so rich and alive, they seem to breathe on the page. Dazzling and unforgettable.
Caroline Leavitt,
Author - Girls in Trouble

McBurney-Lin's debut novel is a gift. Li Hui is a memorable heroine, a young woman torn between her heart and her culture.Her daunting journey is a trip into China's complicated soul, and a deeply moving exploration of love, honor, duty, and loss." Frank Baldwin, Author - Balling the Jack


My Half of the Sky is a wonderfully-crafted story that was obviously written with a piece of McBurney-Lin's heart. A masterpiece."
Lee Lofland, Author - Howdunit: Police Procedure and Investigation


My Half of the Sky heralds the arrival of a fantastic new storyteller. With artistry and precision, Jana McBurney-Lin's clear-eyed prose takes the reader on a new journey into a past world that speaks to a modern sensibility, a modern world, a modern woman. This is a book to be treasured.
Emily Rapp, Author - The Poster Child


Through vivid descriptions of sights and smells, Jana McBurney-Lin's My Half of the Sky is a haunting, emotional journey of what it means to be an honorable female in modern China. Jill Ferguson, Author - Sometimes Art Can't Save You