What a Character

What a Character.

As writers we are taught that characters are the main ingredients in a story. Without likable flawed believable characters, the best most amazing writing in the world won’t be able to shoulder a good story.   So how do you create memorable characters? It starts with the what but ends with the why.

Suppose I tell you my character is terrified of MRIs and hates potatoes. What does that tell you? Not much. But if I throw a little “why” into the equation, maybe the person becomes more real.

Terrified of MRIs. I watch them load her onto the narrow slab of plastic. The machine begins to slowly chug her into the coffin-like confine of the apparatus doctors say is a miracle. I hear a gurgle and then a sob. I realize she’s gasping for air. I yell for them to stop the machine.   I run to her. “What’s wrong?” Her wild eyes stare past me into the horizon.   Sob filled gurgles staccato from her chest. “Help me,” she croaks but I am helpless. “Don’t let them get me,” she whispers, her fingers crushing my hand. It’s only years later, I learn her story.   They put her in a ditch and buried her. Alive. Beneath enough dirt to fill a coffin.   She couldn’t scream or cry. Had to stay deathly still. Otherwise, the soldiers would have found her. And killed her. And so she stayed there. God knows how long. And waited until someone dug her out. She was only five.

Hates potatoes. Every day after work, she got off the bus and walked 10 blocks to the dumpster. Placing her bag on the ground, she leaned forward and hoisted herself into the putrid container. She had a mission. Potato peels. Lots and lots of them. She had to collect as many as she could find. Maybe today, the other cook would be on duty. The one who wasn’t as careful with the knife. He didn’t take time to peel the thinnest layer. He left good chunks of meat together with the skin. Her hand collided with the slimy bounty. Oh good. Still fresh, she thought. She grasped as many as she could and dumped them out onto the street. Her knowing fingers gauging the thickness. A small smile played on her lips. The sloppy one was on duty tonight. When she was done, she hopped back out and put her spoils into the bag. Around the corner and up the stairs. She turned her key into the dingy door and creaked it open. Two small gaunt faces greeted her. “Tonight we eat,” she said and went into the kitchen to cook some potato peels.

My grandmother was a stoic woman. She had to be. She survived attacks on her village, Stalin’s famines and the hardships and hilarity of five people living in a 10×10 sq. ft. room. She came to a new country, only to lose her husband a few months later. She raised kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. She wasn’t a woman prone to too many smiles (who could blame her), but she had a killer sense of humor and a wit sharper and faster than a chainsaw. When asked why she never imposed curfew on my teenaged mom, she simply said, “If she wants to do something, she can just as easily do it at 4pm as she can at 4am.” When asked if she ever wanted to go back to Russia, she replied, “When we left, I packed everything I needed. Thank you for the offer.”

During the last decade of her life, dementia slowly began to eat away at her. As did her Parkinson’s. Her lucidity filtered in and out but there were still times she remembered those around her. She responded well to children. Especially babies, as if their eyes contained some magical cure that anointed all her past ills. But over time, those moments rarely came and quickly went. During her final hospital stay, when I came to visit her, she grasped my arm, her jagged nails digging into my skin and whispered, “They’re trying to kill me.” Her eyes were wild and vacant as she watched with terror or suspicion the nurse who came to get her tray. I wiped the wiry gray hair from her forehead and kissed her, whispering in return. “It’s okay grandma. You’re safe.” But her eyes darted side to side and I knew she was back in a faraway land where soldiers chased little girls, killing them and leaving them to bleed on the side of the road. We said our final goodbyes Thanksgiving weekend and even though I said no words, my pen silently did all the talking.

How often had I written her name
Most times without a care,
Never giving a second glance
How it was written or where.

But now it’s time to etch again
In front of me is her face.
I finish up the final stroke
And seal her resting place.

Sleep tight, my sweet lady.

15 thoughts on “What a Character

  1. O. M. G. Speechless. Can’t even fucking see the screen through my tears…. (gets tissues)………
    Ok, well let me just say, thank you for that profound lesson in character. Your gramma deserves two sets of angel wings.

  2. Beautiful poem, Masha. I am very sorry for your loss. Your grandmother sounds like an amazing woman.

  3. Hi Masha. At first when I read the first few lines and saw that this was going to be about character, I quickly figured I’d share somehthing I’d also learned about character in a class I’m taking. Then I read on. And like everytime I read something written by you, I am astounded. You have the deepest, most tragicfally beautiful way with words, Masha. Truly. My thoughts and gratitude to you and your grandma.

  4. Masha – How blessed you were to have such a strong surviving woman in your life. What a beautiful tribute to her that you are also brave, sharing yourself on the page.

  5. Your words reached deep inside and twisted my heart. A beautiful tribute to a woman I wish I’d had the honor of knowing…and a good example of how we as writers need to dig deep inside our characters to know what has shaped them. Thank you and giving hugs of sympathy on the loss of your beloved grandmother.

  6. Absolutely beautiful and haunting Masha. Your grandmother was a brave soul and she has passed that courageous spirit onto her granddaughter for sure. My maternal grandfather grew up in Germany and survived the First World War by eating out of garbage cans and doing what your Grandmother did. He came to this country in 1920 to marry and raise a family here. Thank goodness we carry their stories so we never forget how fortunate we are to live free. Thanks so much for sharing a piece of your heart today.

  7. Wow, this was just beautiful. I’m so touched. I can’t imagine what your grandmother went through. And the way you tied it in with why our characters are who they are is amazing. Thank you, to you and to your grandmother, for a much needed moment of inspiration.

  8. Wow. You know how they say a picture is worth a 1,000 words… It’s not true. I’m not sure any picture could have elicited the emotions I am feeling after reading the tragically beautiful tribute to an incredibly strong woman you have written here. Thank you for this poignant reminder to look deeper than the surface, to find out why our characters act as they do and show it.

    I am so sorry for your loss. My thoughts and prayers go out to you.

  9. Masha – I’m so sorry about your Grandmother!!! Your post is beautiful and heartfelt and an amazing tribute. Big hugs!

  10. I will add to the chorus of wows. I’m always up for a lesson on creating memorable characters. Writing characters that stick with the reader long after the book has been read is a goal for all of us. Nothing like getting emotionally blindsided in the process. Thank you for such a powerful object lesson, and giving us all a very personal peek into the life of your family.

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