Great novels have
relatable characters—characters who breathe and cry and scream and
holler and laugh...
It’s never easy when you read
the single-spaced, multi-paged letter from your editor telling you what
changes you need to make to your manuscript, especially the first time.
I guess you could say I was a substantive-edit-letter virgin. But the
thing my editor said that really struck me and knocked me on my
backside was this: My main character (Mara in Watching the
Tree Limbs) was not responding emotionally to the trauma she
Of course she was! She was being
normal. Everyone knows that when little kids are traumatized, they
often shut down, not displaying appropriate emotions. But as I wrestled
with my editor’s right-on observation, I started to understand
Great novels have relatable
characters—characters who breathe and cry and scream and holler and
laugh. They invite you into their fragile emotional landscapes. And as
they do, they pull you into the vortex of the stories.
But in the realization, I
shuddered. No, Watching the Tree Limbs was not my
story, though parts of Mara’s troubles echoed mine. But in some ways,
Mara was me. How? She did not display negative emotions.
I grew up in a home that didn’t
allow me to show negative emotions. When I was sad, I learned it was
not acceptable to be needy or to spill tears. I soon learned that to be
accepted, I’d have to save my crying for my pillowcase. When I was
angry, I’d have to go somewhere else to shout my rage. (I remember one
time hollering at the top of my lungs in our horse barn while I
So here I was, creating the same
home for my character! I wouldn’t let her emote! I wouldn’t let her
have normal anger when life spun out of control.
I had to make peace with this.
In one of the most healing
ventures of my life, I went back through the manuscript and added the
emotions I was never allowed to show. In that, I grieved. As I gave
Mara my tears, I wept. When she questioned her circumstances, I relived
my own. Getting it all out on the page in black-and-white changed me
utterly. Because the truth sets us free. Always.
My original scene, before
changing it began this way:
She twisted and turned in her
sheets, entangling her sweaty self in them like a cocoon. She closed
her eyes and longed for an adult embrace—of a fond touch from her
mother or her father. For a moment, one tiny moment, she willed her
parents into existence—parents who would hold her like the sheets held
her now. Instead of fighting against the percale, she slowed her
breathing and begged for sleep.
The scene ended there. But look
how I expanded it, giving Mara emotions:
She twisted and turned in her
sheets, entangling her sweaty self in them like a straight jacket. She
closed her eyes and longed for a hug—of a fond touching from her mother
or her father. For a
moment, one tiny moment, she willed
alive—parents who would hold her like the sheets held her now. Instead
of fighting against the bedding, she slowed her breathing and begged
As she started to fall asleep, a tear trailed out of her eye. She wiped
it, but another one came. Then another. Before she could wipe them all
away, a sob burst from her chest. She smashed her pillow to her mouth,
suffocating her wail. Heaving chest, watering eyes, aching heart—all
these combined into a display of weepy helplessness. She ached for
Nanny Lynn to come back from heaven, to swoop down like a cowbird to
rescue her from General. But no matter how much she cried nothing would
change. And this made her weep all the more until she heard footsteps.
Aunt Elma appeared in her doorway. “You crying? What for?”
Mara heard a tinge of tenderness in her aunt’s voice. For a moment, she
wanted to spill everything out. “I’m sad.”
“Mara, how many times have I told you that Nanny Lynn, she ain’t coming
back, no matter how much you boo-hoo.” Aunt Elma walked over to her bed
and bent low. In a rare show of motherly attention, she smoothed the
covers over Mara and stood. She shook her head.
Mara could see her wet eyes. She misses Nanny Lynn as much as
I do. Maybe she’ll understand if I tell her about General. Maybe that’s
love behind her eyes. “I know, but—”
“No buts about it. Get over it. I want no more tears about her. She’s
gone. You should be over her by now.” She turned abruptly and shut the
door behind her.
Mara slipped her thumb in her mouth, thankful she hadn’t spilled her
words, worried if she didn’t plug her mouth, she would.
Can you see how adding that
emotional response brought you closer to the character? How it made you
root for her?
Not only did adding her
emotional depth strengthen my novel, but also the process changed my
heart. I never knew that writing a book would be one of God’s
instruments to heal me. Some of us naïvely think we’re called to write
for the sake of other people. But I have found that God uses my own
words to bring me farther along the healing journey.
Mara, I thank you.