An Interview with Sunday's Speaker, Jacqueline Luckett
Jacqueline Luckett Gives Us a Preview on Writing Great Characters Grounded in Reality
This Sunday in Preservation Park, Jacqueline Luckett will speak to the club on writing stronger characters. Luckett’s two novels are Passing Love and Searching for Tina Turner, and she writes essays in the Huffington Post and Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011.
CWC member and journalist Cristina Deptula asked her some questions so we can get to know her better.
CD: You talked about living authentically in an old blog post on your website, about having personal values even if you don’t consciously think about them a lot. Did developing and articulating your own values help you do the same for your characters, or vice versa?
JL: My characters are people with values, that may or may not parallel my own. I try to include characters, male and female, with values and action that are the opposite of my own.
CD: What are some examples of grounded, developed characters in contemporary or classic fiction?
JL: Pecola, in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye believes that having blue eyes will make her happy. Every action she takes grounds her to this belief. Lotto and Mathilde, husband and wife in Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, steadfastly hold on to their perceptions of themselves and each other. My own character, Ruby, in Passing Love, believes her life will be better in Paris, no matter the personal cost. She’s dogged, persistent, and focused.
Every action these characters take is a result of his/her character development, physically and emotionally.
CD: How can you learn to write about a character unlike yourself without falling into stereotypes?
I took a class from Junot Diaz years ago. He suggested trying to write yourself as a character with a scar or disfiguration. How that character approaches the world will create a new character different from self.
I’m a black woman over fifty. Does that mean that I can only write characters who are black women over 50? Of course, not. It’s our job as writers to observe, to dig into our memories and to write past the first idea that comes to mind. That’s where being a great observer of people comes in. If your mother called father to dinner many times before he finally came to the table, what does this characteristic say about your mother? How does the father’s response distinguish him? The traits aren’t gender specific. They’re great traits that distinguish and deepen a character. We can twist those traits into characteristics that, alone or in combination, can avoid stereotyping. Mix things up.
CD: Does every characteristic you give a character have to relate somehow to the plot, or can it work to develop a character just for the sake of having them be more well rounded or letting the readers get to know them better?
Not necessarily. Just as in life, we run into people who are interesting, but irrelevant to whatever we’re doing at the moment, so too are incidental characters in a story who pop up on a protagonist’s journey. They hold our interest, enliven our stories, and create a three-dimensional world.
Right now, I’m reading Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane. In a party scene, he lists the names of five or six attendees who may be important to the main character’s enjoyment of the celebration. We only know their names. The guests blend together and probably won’t be seen again. There’s one character, in the scene a woman, who’s described in a couple of sentences. She holds a baby on her hip, she’s striking, and, the characteristic that really stands out for me, she struggles with her newly adopted English language. This character stands out.
CD: I’ve heard talks on how to create unique and individual characters before. Is creating a character who’s grounded in reality kind of the same idea? Will a character who’s grounded in the reality of an actual and realistic person be more likely to be interesting?
Not if the actual person isn’t interesting. Even if they’re real, a writer may have to give him/her characteristics to make them engaging, appealing and give readers a reason to stick with a story.
When I speak of characters grounded in reality, I don’t mean the everyday reality of incidents. I’m talking about characteristics that make people real and credible: a person who itches all the time, a man who sings in the BART station but nowhere else, a person who cannot look another in the eye, someone who voices the same complaint every day of her life.
Jacqueline Luckett has an MFA in Screenwriting from the University of California, Riverside. Luckett frequently speaks to various organizations about discovering her passion, her path to successful publication, and advice for new writers seeking to move forward in their careers. The Bay Area native lives in Oakland and travels frequently to nurture her passion for photography, exotic foods, and in search of another city that mesmerizes her as much as Paris. Learn more about her at JacquelineLuckett.com, or come to this Sunday’s meeting.
Luckett is the highlight of our schedule, but be sure to get to the meeting early to take advantage of our group discussions on craft and marketing. Coffee and snacks are included.