Last month, I re-reviewed an invaluable piece of beta feedback that touched on the character of Louise Stella from my novel, Isolated.
This beta reader suggested that Louise wasn’t exactly a likable person (and being the main character of the story, she ought to be). I agree! She’s quite frankly a proud character and it doesn’t usually come across as pleasant.
This reader went on to give me excellent advice regarding how to fix the problem: give more glimpses into Louise’s relationships. Show her part in the family. Show her caring for them and them caring for her. (This reminded me of a particular blog series I’ve been reading, the first post being this one.)
I think this advice is strikingly accurate, not just in book character development, but in life. Caring and being cared for is a way of connecting with others on a heart level. It may be the simplest demonstration of the fact that God designed us for relationships. Even non-Christians desire to be loved, and recognize the importance of giving it.
Without further ado, here’s a small window into Louise’s family life. This is not taken from any of the novellas; it was simply something I wrote to get a better grasp of Louise’s relationships with her family members. (There is practically no plot in it.)
Louise sighed. By the way her mom fussed about their bi-weekly family nights, one would think she had come up with the schedule herself. Tonight, the two of them were on cleanup duty, while Lily and Daddy cooked together. On their next family night, two weeks from now, Louise would clean with Lily while their parents did the cooking.
Though they called it ‘clean up’, their job included setting the table.
“Let’s use this set tonight.” Asked her mom, holding out the spring-patterned dinnerware.
Eating on china plates painted with birds and flowers doesn’t make us any closer to nature, Louise thought, but she said nothing as she received the stack of four plates.
“It’s not that I always have to have outdoor-themed things.” Her mom projected the direction of Louise’s thoughts and explained away her behavior. “They just look pretty, that’s all.”
Louise bit her tongue and nodded to satisfy her mom. “What are we eating tonight, Daddy?” She asked. A few meters away, he and Lily stood at the kitchen island, pouring over words and pictures on the computer screen, probably recipe ideas for future weeks since tonight’s meal was on track to be served in five minutes.
“Nothing,” Lily interjected. “That’s not what I mean. I mean it’s a surprise.” She loved surprises – more than was practical in Louise’s opinion. But in this case, it didn’t matter.
“Bowls or plates?” Louise asked, getting to the point of her original question.
“Bowls,” the younger sister practically sung her reply.
Louise might be singing too if she was the one cooking with Daddy. Her turn would come soon enough. In the meantime, she exchanged the plates for the matching bowls while her mom picked out the cutlery. They moved to the adjoining dining room and laid out the dishes. Her mom proceeded to fetch the cups and salt and pepper shakers, while Louise filled a jug with cold water and topped it with ice.
“You should put the ice in first,” her mom directed. “That way you won’t spill any water.”
Louise thought about commenting that she had managed not to spill much when she did it her way. Instead, she said “okay,” and left it at that.
With nothing left to be brought out but the food, Louise and her mom sat across the table from each other and made small talk. Or rather, the mother made it while the daughter endured it.
“What time did you finish school today?”
“One o’clock.” Like always.
A few seconds ebbed away.
“What did you learn?”
“Galileo. Telescopes.” She winced at the hardness of her own voice. She really should make an effort on family night. It was just that she preferred to be left to herself. She was quickly irritated by small talk – idle chatter as she liked to call it.
Her mom drummed the table with her fingers. She uncrossed her legs and then crossed them the other way. Perhaps silence made her mom uncomfortable.
“I took the students to the river to dig Egyptian Wells today.” Her mom offered. ‘The students’ was a term they used to refer to the attendees of the Bible-School-cross-outdoors-activity-center where both her parents worked and which – in fact – they lived at. “It’s a technique from the Bible, you know? The Egyptians used it to get clean water when God turned the Nile to blood.”
Louise didn’t know. But she did sometimes wonder if her mom threw in words like ‘God’ and ‘the Bible’ to give herself more credit. She supposed some people would buy it and think more highly of her. Oh, Louise! Stop being so critical! Why was she so wound up, anyway? She leaned back in her chair as if fully sitting in it for the first time, and offered her mom a weak smile. Her mom returned it. She was a gracious woman; Louise had to give her that.
“Food’s ready!” Lily called, life bursting forth at the sound of her voice.
Daddy strode to the table holding the large pot in mittened hands while Lily trotted by his side with a hot plate and ladle. She set them on the table and hurried to pull up a chair beside their mom.
“I smell beef,” commented the woman of the house.
“Uh-huh,” said Daddy sinking into his chair next to Louise. “Lily, will you tell us what it is?”
“Beef stew with carrots and potatoes!” She beamed, “And onion and celery and… bay leaves?” She looked to her dad to make sure she’d named the right herb.
Eight arms extended simultaneously around the table as they held hands and bowed their heads for prayer. Louise listened to her dad’s voice – a soothing sound. The words meant little to her, but she could tell they were personal for him. He was the only person who made religion seem deep and desirable. Still, she didn’t feel it for herself.
“Amen,” he said to end his speech.
“Amen,” they echoed.
Louise wondered if Lily and their mom’s minds wondered as much as hers did during prayer time. Did they also have no idea what they were agreeing with?
“Ed, may I dish you out some stew?” The wife addressed her husband with a sweet smile.
“Thank you,” he said, holding out his bowl and returning the gesture.
Lily was already holding hers out, ready to be served second.
“Louise?” Asked her mom, scooping up a third ladleful of dinner.
Louise extended her bowl towards the pot. “Thanks, mom.” She brought back her dinner, set it on the table and waited for her mom to serve herself. Then they all dug in together.