Love Letters

September 2nd, 2006

Many – most – maybe even all of us here at Deep Genre write character-driven fiction (I qualify that statement only because while I would like to presume to speak for the others, I can’t quite).

For myself, I can say that every one of my novels has its genesis in a vivid, visual, scene of a Character in a Situation. The landscape and the plot grow out of that original image and emotional tone.

Sometimes characters emerge organically out of the evolving narrative, sometimes they walk in from my unconscious and hit me over the head demanding to be included, and sometimes I will “build” a character who is needed due to the exigencies of the plot. In general, though, characters are who they are; in a perfect world, they are discrete individuals whose lives are intertwined with the landscape they “live” in.

Some among us now and then may invest a character with a bit of wish fulfillment. I’m not immune to this urge, and at times I indulge it cautiously and with (I hope) restraint. At the extreme, this is called writing a “Mary Sue” story, a subject that has been discussed earlier on Deep Genre here and here by Sherwood.

But there’s another kind of personalized character development that I want to call “The Love Letter.”

Maybe I’m the only one who does this. Maybe you could argue that it shouldn’t be done, which I’m not going to do here because, well, I do it.

Now and again an otherwise naturally developed character will gather to her- or himself a characteristic or trait or hobby or skill or preference that I have a deep personal affection for. That is, through the character, I end up writing a little love letter.

It might as precise as roses or curry, or as general as a love for dressing up in spiffy clothes. It might be Polynesian canoes (I’m waiting to get to that one), or ballet, or crotchety old women who take no guff from anyone. It might be baseball, or origami, or those tenacious folk still running a family farm.

It’s not the main point of the character, or the whole of him or her, but it is a part of that character.

In Spirit Gate, the character of Zubaidit (be patient; she doesn’t enter the tale until about halfway through the story) is my love letter to the women – young and old – at the gym where I work out.

Back in the day, when I was a young thing in high school, girls weren’t to perspire, muscles were unfeminine, and god forbid you could outrun, outshoot, or outplay a boy in anything, much less be seen pumping iron. We had girls’ sports, only then beginning to gain some legitimacy a few years after the passage of Title IX. The one girl who really was a died-in-the-wool jock – that is, the main focus of her energy and interest was in playing sports because she was simply that good – was an anomalous creature; those of us who loved playing sports and being strong and active did other things as well, or disguised ourselves in other ways.

This period in the mid to late 70s was the beginning of the big change, a sea change. Throughout the 80s, more opportunities arose for girls to participate in sports at all levels. In 1993, during the final of the NCAA Women’s Division I basketball playoffs, I remember almost crying, I was so thrilled to watch Sheryl Swoopes and the other Texas Tech and Ohio State players, live on television.

It’s easy to forget, in 2006, that 1976 and 1993 aren’t that long ago in the greater scheme of things.

So I go to the gym and I look at these women lifting weights for what I’m sure are a variety of reasons: health, fitness, vanity, competition. What does it matter? They’re proud of their strength, of their muscles, of their physicality. They’re confident, and in their myriad shapes and sizes and ages they are all beautiful.

Zubaidit is my love letter to them.

Do you have a love letter in your fiction?

13 Responses to “Love Letters”

  1. Sherwood Smithon 02 Sep 2006 at 11:45 am

    If I am understanding right, I do think your Love Letter is a very important part of fiction. The Mary Sue thing is a distortion of character–that is, a given character about whom the entire story, the world, and the other characters revolve, instead of having their own history and lives–but that is quite different from a thread-homage. (Urgh, I wish there were more precise terms that were understood in exactly the same way by everybody.)

    So…I see a Love Letter as the way that Proust’s masterpiece is a love letter to the gay man. Or that Pride and Prejudice is a Love Letter to rational women. Or that Lord of the Rings is a Love Letter to the England of the far past. Dune is a Love Letter to the Hero. Etc. When done well, this aspect connects with the reader through emotional engagement. I also think that writers who scrupulously cut this aspect out of their writing lose readers who want to engage on more levels than just the intellect.

  2. Katharine Kerron 02 Sep 2006 at 4:31 pm

    Immediate digression: I wouldn’t say that about Proust. His gay men are deeply flawed, being as his own sexuality had brought him so much self-loathing. Too many male critics interpret some of his very believable female characters as men and then insist it’s a “gay book”. If there are love letters in Proust, they are to his mother(in the guise of his grandmother) and to Swan, who’s ardently hetereosexual. Proust admired Jews, like his own mother, who managed to create stable lives in a still anti-semetic France — hence the importance of the Dreyfus affair in the books.

    Arrgh, I apologize — my hobby horse got the bit in its mouth. Back to the actual point of this post: :-)

    “Love letter” is an interesting concept, indeed. The love-letter character strikes me as very different than the Ideal Mate type of character, the wish-fulfillment Sexy but Loyal Broad of many male writers, the Perfect Lover type of Romance novelists. The l-l character is much more interesting, for starters. :-)

    I probably do have such characters in my stuff, but I can’t think of who. I don’t consciously make up characters so much as spawn them.

  3. Marie Brennanon 02 Sep 2006 at 7:20 pm

    There’s a chapter in Doppelganger that makes everybody who knows me grin, since it’s my love letter to the thirteen years of my life where I was a dancer. It isn’t centered in a character, since the character it connects to has left that part of her life behind, but it grew out of said character’s history.

  4. Sherwood Smithon 02 Sep 2006 at 7:34 pm

    Kit: I came to that conclusion after reading, with care, that long sentence buried in the center of the book….it was a beautiful apologia, surrounded by all the rest of the story as you say. Because of the way I read that sentence, it affected my perception of the rest–as directed toward the straight world. But I realize I could well be wrong. Not like I’m not totally misguided fifty times a day and twice on Sundays.

  5. Madeleine Robinson 02 Sep 2006 at 8:41 pm

    Without thinking very hard: The Stone War was my love letter to the city of my birth.

  6. kateelliotton 03 Sep 2006 at 12:10 am

    Kit, I think of how your love for football (American football) has informed the battle scenes in Deverry. I know it’s just research, but there is something about your real affection for football that comes – although that might be very well be me reading in because I know how it has influenced you.

    So I am thinking about it not just with reference to characters but in the larger sense. Maybe in the sense that MarieB mentions with dancing.

  7. kateelliotton 03 Sep 2006 at 12:11 am

    I also think that writers who scrupulously cut this aspect out of their writing lose readers who want to engage on more levels than just the intellect.

    I think this is an important insight, Sherwood. Think you can expand it into a post?

  8. kateelliotton 03 Sep 2006 at 12:12 am

    Mad, yes, exactly (re: Stone Wars)

  9. Katharine Kerron 03 Sep 2006 at 5:30 am

    Sherwood, I didn’t say I thought you were -wrong-. I said “I wouldn’t say that.” I don’t know enough to go around saying ‘you are wrong’ to someone like you. I simply don’t agree, but then, I too have been known to come out of left field often enough, and at times, I’m out in left field when there isn’t even a game being played.

    Alis, what, me use sports metaphors? :-)

    I think you’re right, btw. It’s not so much the affection for football but my affection for a certain kind of man, though god knows I’d never marry one! Needless to say, to find that kind of warrior one has to stick to sports or fantasy . . .

  10. Katharine Kerron 03 Sep 2006 at 5:33 am

    Come to think of it, apropos de Mad’s comment on Stone Wars, FREEZE FRAMES is my love letter to San Francisco and to some extent, to the UK as well.

  11. Katharine Kerron 03 Sep 2006 at 5:55 am

    Sherwood, it occurs to me that I was responding to something in your Proust comment that you most likely never meant — I got the impression you were saying that the whole thing was only a love letter to the gay man, which is the kind of generalization you don’t make.

    I am really rattled these days — post-book muddle, mostly.

  12. Sherwood Smithon 03 Sep 2006 at 10:04 am

    Oh, I see! No, not only–not a broad, splendid work like that! One of my favorite sections is the delightful one when the women are discussing what makes a man attractive…oh, it’s a masterwork in so many ways. Elsewhere it might be fun to do a group reading of the Swan cycle. But it seemed to me that aspect was a vein informing the entire marble block, and a love letter vein. Because of that one revealing sentence. (But then a great work is going to seem many things to many people, that is part of its greatness.)

  13. Muneravenon 03 Sep 2006 at 1:21 pm

    I absolutely do this too. And I find great joy in it.

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