Writing Native American Characters

There’s an author interview I read every Sunday in the New York Times Book Review. It’s a pretty much set in stone list of questions. One question, about what these writers read, gives me glimpses into writing practices of wildly successful writers. All writers read widely in several genres. They have their quirky likes and dislikes. One thing mentioned often is if the Famous Writer reads in the genre they are writing in while working on a book.

Some do, some don’t. I will read mysteries when I write a mystery, so I was relieved to be in good company there. My problem has never been answered in these interviews, but that’s fine, I have a mind of my own and I can figure out that there is one book–There There by Tommy Orange– I should not read while writing the current WIP. At first I thought it was essential I read it, but now I’ve changed my mind.

In my WIP, I have a sprinkling of Native American characters. I don’t have any other reason for this decision other than I see urban Indians in the town I live in. They are lives off the reservation. They are just neighbors. Well, on the surface. Their lives, their grief, their heritage and the prejudices against them go deeper than that, as did the beyond my scope of experience black characters in Lily White in Detroit. With the characters in Lily White, at least I had some knowledge of black culture from my years as a white student at a black college.  

The only truly American Indian person I know is a good friend from my pre-college days. I never thought of Jesse as Indian and he never talked about it. He was just one of us, part of the gang of friends from high school. Then years later he began to embrace his heritage and it came out in subtle (and sometimes blunt) ways. The pow wow he was attending. The regalia he’d wear. His rage over the pipeline that was meant to be built over a sacred burial site. His mixing in Indian words from his tribe in Facebook posts. Reading Tommy Orange’s book right now would certainly give me a much wider perspective of how it feels to be Native in America today. But the question is–why do I need to know for my work in progress?

When I began this book, I was sure I wouldn’t have to deal with race. It’s a tightrope for a white woman to understand what life feels like to any other person, especially if they are from another segment of society, like black or Indian. I finally figured out as I was writing this brand new book that needs so much revising that this writing experience is not the same as writing about a black cop working with a white private detective. I had to know something about black culture just to make my black police detective live on the page. For the Native Americans, things are more removed.

At first I thought I’d do a lot more with the Indian community. I read up on the natives of Florida and the 100 year war fought in Florida over the territory. I still want to visit some of their museums. I have a scene set at a casino and on a reservation in Tampa, where the powerful Seminole tribe thrives to this day. And I can still do all that, do the research and field trips required. But I’m afraid to read Tommy Orange’s book until I finish my own because I don’t want to inadvertently use any of his characterizations. There are 12 Indians and each has his or her own story in Orange’s novel. It seems like I could, without knowing, easily take something from them.

And that would make me no better than my ancestors who took much more from a people who were here in America far longer than my white ancestors had been.

How To Color a Character

When I first started sending my novels around to publishers and agents, I often heard that my main character was not very fun/nice/likable. “He’s no hero” and “she’s got too many issues” were typical comments. This perplexed me for a number of reasons. I liked my characters, for one. They were human and real to me. They were often based on, well, me. Or on Men I Have Known. They sort of wrote themselves. So how could they be wrong?

As it turns out, writing for publication is a business. And the business model says that a heroine should not have too many issues and a hero needs to be more heroic than a real man. I quickly learned that if I wanted to play this game, I’d have to learn the craft. In fact, one kind editor said exactly this to me. “Your writing is fine. You just need to learn your craft.”

Really? There’s a craft to it? What exactly is craft? And where do I get it?


I got mine in Ohio. This is where I traveled to take a week-long intensive with bestselling novelist Jennifer Crusie. Jenny said a couple of things about character that were key to my novelist education. One was that a hero needs to be more heroic than any actual man I may have met (or married) in real life. The other was that readers want to cheer for a main character. They want to see someone worthy work hard, get knocked down, but finally, win the prize.

So I went home and proceeded to make up a character. What I’d done previously was simply write whoever showed up on the page (some version of me and an ex) and whatever they did. Now I was a writer who knew a thing or two about the theory (if not execution) of craft. It was time to execute. Kill my darlings. Reshape them into people with whom readers might want to spend time.

TheParisNotebook_w5955_300Now I start every novel with the idea that my main character is going to work very hard. She is not afraid of hard work. She will do whatever it takes to get the job done. After six published novels, it’s like second nature to me. Having practiced my craft, I understand hard work. So I get it. But at first it was difficult to go in and reshape these beings.

Give them better qualities, like a work ethic or heroic heart. You have to figure out ways to show this. What’s their job? Show them doing it. Avoid being boring. This part of writing, the planning and firmly putting character is the place you want them to be, is different than writing.

When I write, I hit a stream and flow. When I step back and plan, it’s more like being the person I am in daily life. I am not in the fictional trance. I’m present, with a problem, or maybe just dinner to make,  that same sort of mindset. I cut the fat, choose the spices, make sure not to burn my hand. And thus, my character becomes something of my deliberate creation, something of which readers of popular fiction might make a meal.


It’s a book. Rose’s mom has a name, Belinda, and a voice. Dad’s hanging out in the background waiting for his turn, and not very patiently, either. Belinda is not my mom. She’s got a piece of me I can build the character on, which is how I like it. I even think I have the 70s figured out. The ideas are coming faster than I can write them down. Along with scenes, I need an idea page.

Now if only I could move to the west coast, perferrably with an ocean view. Then the writing would really flow. Actually, I am sooo tired of setting stories in Michigan. I am tired of Michigan winter. It snowed again last night. Always on Tuesday night, when I have class. I think we’re well over 50 inches of the pretty white stuff for this year. Enough already. 

But in the gratitude department, I’m roses today. I got me a new book.

Writer’s Holiday

“I’ve started to write it. I’ve been thinking about it so much that I felt I’d burst if I didn’t. I write it in the early mornings…”

That’s from Marian Keyes The Other Side of the Story, the second novel about novelists I’ve read in four days. While resting up from finishing the latest WIP, I’m reading novels about writing novels instead of actually writing one.

I realized, when I read the above sentence, that I wanted that feeling again, the feeling only working on a big, long project like a novel can bring. I’m not quite ready to start, but am exploring possible topics and characters.

I still like Rose from my short story, but she’s stuck in the 70s and I don’t know if I can do a whole book there. So that’s where I’m at, just thinking and likely to stay on novel- sabbatical until after my spring break. That’s in mid-March, and Al and I are going to Florida to see Dad.

My parents are still married but they spend winters apart because Dad loves sun and golf and so does his arthritis and Mom loves snow and winter and being tucked in her cozy room with a book while the weather rages outside. She loathes sun, heat, and any temperature above 68 degrees. The whole “but married people should live together” doesn’t really enter into the picture for them. I need parents for Rose. Maybe mine would work. They certainly have their quirks.

I shamelessly stole this idea from MK, whose Gemma turns her parents into characters in her book.   

Present With Compassion

Leafing through a catalog by Shambhala Publications this morning, I came across the phase “Be Present With Compassion” and jotted it on an index card for my corkboard. It’s the way I want to live what’s left of my life. I just paged through the catalog again to see who said it so I could give proper attribution, but it is not the title of a book. Must have been copy summary. It’s the kind of thing Buddhists say all the time.

It struck me that being present with compassion is how my favorite writers are with their characters, too.

Maybe not all writers and all characters, just the kind of novels I like to read. Novels full of flawed people who you love and forgive because the writer, skillfully and carefully, is an every-moment compassionate witness. Whether the characters are acting out in anger, being stupidly stubborn, or rising above an impossible occassion, the writer is there, with her character in the moment, practicing endless compassion.