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Repost: Creating characters, not quite from scratch

This is a repost from the blog, Any Shiny Thing - Life After 50. Thanks to Lynne Spreen for sharing these thoughts with her readers!

When a Character Becomes Real

April 23, 2021 By Lynne Morgan Spreen 1 Comment

Lynne: As a writer, I think the the creative process is almost miraculous.

We authors invent characters from thin air, and then we—and hopefully our readers—begin to think of them as real people. Recently, my friend Marj Charlier discussed her new novel, The Rebel Nun, with a book club, and she was delighted to see the extent to which they wanted to discuss the main character Clotild. Although she was a person from history who actually did lead a rebellion in 6th century France, not much else is known about her. But while reading this wonderful novel, it did seem real.

I’ll let Marj tell her story and then pick it up on the other side.

Marj Charlier, author of The Rebel Nun:

I am fresh off an experience that I had fully anticipated would be fun—talking about my book, The Rebel Nun, with a book club via Zoom. It was fun, but I had no idea how enlightening it would be. Marj Charlier’s The Rebel Nun is based on the true story of a 6th century nun who leads a rebellion against the church.

Book clubs have discussed some of my other books in the past, but this one was special, just as The Rebel Nun is special to me. I have more confidence in this book’s appeal, thanks to finding a traditional publisher for it, which also raised my personal stakes in its success.

Going into this latest book club meeting , I had a lot on the line. First, I knew the women in the club. If they didn’t like the book, I worried they wouldn’t feel free to tell me, or if they did, it might complicate our friendships. And second, I had not yet talked much to others about The Rebel Nun, and I had no idea what issues readers may experience in reading it.

Well, first: they did like it. (At least they said so.) And their questions, some of which I had suggested as “book club questions,” weren’t particularly surprising.

What surprised me though, was the discussion that ensued about my principal character, the leader of the rebellion, Clotild.

For context: Clotild was a sixth century sister in a monastery in Poitiers, France, who led a rebellion of nuns against the local bishop and the Catholic Church in an effort to retain control over their own abbey. It is based on a true story, about which only a little is known. The basic facts—year, what the nuns did to rebel, who won the fight, how Clotild was punished—were recorded by Bishop Gregory of Tours in his history of France written at the same time.

Once the book group began talking about how they felt about Clotild and what her goals were, I sat back and listened. It was amazing to realize the substantial degree to which Clotild had become a real, full-blown character in their minds—full-blown enough that they had theories about her motivation and judgments about her choices.

Clotild was, to a large extend, a person I created. While the fact of the rebellion is universally accepted as truth, nothing is known about Clotild’s personality or motivations, other than Gregory’s opinion that she was full of “hubris” and “recklessness.” No one has discovered anything Clotild wrote about the rebellion—or anything else, for that matter. To write the novel, I had to create Clotild’s inner voice, and imagine what motivated her to lead this risky rebellion and how she reflected on it later.

To hear her mind probed by my readers was fascinating. Clotild had become real to them, and it gave me pause to realize that, to a very large extent, she is a person I created. How powerful is fiction! It can bring people to life—sometimes again and again—and give them enough substance that we can have debates about why they did things and what kind of people they really were.

Okay, you say, novelists have been doing this since the very first fiction was written. What shocked me was feeling the weight of the responsibility I now had for the story, the legacy, and the reputation I had given her. And what surprised me was the joy it brought me to hear others embrace her.

Lynne again: I’m not surprised her readers enjoyed The Rebel Nun as much as they did. I’m a fan as well. You can read my five-star review here.

For more information about Marj Charlier or The Rebel Nun (Blackstone Publishing), please click here for her website, and here to see the book on Amazon. Also, for more information about upcoming events featuring Marj discussing The Rebel Nun, please click here.

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