THE CRAFT OF WRITING
Jacqueline Woodson on discovering what your characters want.
July 5, 2023
Here’s the thing: everybody wants something. Inside the narrative and out. We want to be loved, we want to be seen, we want to be happy, fed, healthy, housed, needed. Did I say loved? Can I say loved enough? And if we’re being true to ourselves and the characters we’re creating, they want what we want. Hence, the question to ask as a writer is What do our characters want and how are they going to get it? Always. Why? Because it’s the question we’ve been asking ourselves our whole lives.
I don’t teach, so crafting an essay about some particular area of writing is a challenge. I believe in leading by example and on the next page or two, that’s exactly what I’m gonna do.
In the early 1990s, I began writing a book that I’d later title I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This. When I bent over the page to begin it, it was because I had a voice in my head. The voice was raspy. The girl who belonged to the voice was obviously white. And young. Somehow, I knew that she was poor. She said, “Black, white, it don’t make no difference; we all just people here.” I didn’t know why this character who had just suddenly shown up in my brain was saying this, but I knew someone had to respond, had to be at once in conversation and in conflict with the character I named Lena — because I like the name. Marie, an upper-middle-class Black girl, came out of my thinking about conflict. What did it mean to put two people from different economic backgrounds into conversation? So now I had some characters and a statement. And a whole lot of blank pages in front of me. But I had conflict and people longing to tell their stories. I didn’t know yet what was important about their stories and why right now was when their stories needed to be told. But I knew my characters had something to say. And having written many books before this one, I knew they had to be more than mouthpieces. They had to have flaws and brilliance. They had to have a deep fragility while remaining unbreakable.
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I think there are some writers who believe they have it all figured out, that they know the machinations of their stories early on, from beginning to end. Maybe they’re not lying, but I stay doubtful. There is so much that is unknown when we begin telling our stories. I’ve never been afraid of that unknown. Because in the unknowing comes discovery — of both character and self. With Lena in I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This, I wanted to know what she wanted. Why was she in my head? Why now? Was I supposed to be telling her story? What did I know about whiteness? Poverty? The rural Midwest? What did what she was saying — Black, white, it don’t make no difference; we all just people here — mean? To me? To the narrative? To the greater good? But more than all of this, I kept coming back to the question of what does Lena want? I didn’t know. How was she going to get it? No idea.
Here’s what I knew back then — that Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals was a big part of my reading. I was using her words in the lectures I was giving to talk about the state of race in this country. I was thinking about the ways to weave her teachings into the books I was writing for young people. Already, she had appeared in two other books of mine: From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun and If You Come Softly. I had put her words into the mouths of young people. Years later, I would write in my adult novel Red at the Bone that “if a body’s to be remembered, someone has to live to tell its story.” Lorde had only recently become an ancestor, and I wanted her remembered the way I wanted Baldwin and Grimké, Haley and Hurston remembered. I couldn’t drag all of those figures into one novel, but I could center the work of one and let it be the touch- stone for a character or two. Let it be the voice that spoke truth to power. Let it be its own character inside the story. In centering The Cancer Journals between Lena and Marie, I began to figure out so much about economic class structure in the novel, about parenting, about loss, about depression and survival. In the early nineties, not a lot of people were doing this in young people’s literature. I chose to embrace the fact that what I was trying to write didn’t exist yet, knowing that if the characters had the depth and empathy needed to make a reader feel, the rest would come.
What did Lena want: to be loved, to be seen, to be safe. What did Marie want: the same. How were they going to get it: by first seeing the depth in each other, the impact the outside world had on them, and their own power. And Lorde’s work, I would later understand, was in the narrative to paint a road. “For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america, we must learn the first and most important lesson,” Lorde wrote, “that we were never meant to survive.”
With young people, “You can’t” becomes a bit in their mouths that they will pull and bite against until it kills them — or they break free of it. For a long time, I didn’t know what my characters wanted. And then I did because I knew what I wanted. To love and be loved. To break free... and live to tell the story.
Adapted from How We Do It edited by Jericho Brown and reprinted with permission from Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2023.
Jacqueline Woodson is an American writer of books for adults, children, and adolescents. She is best known for her National Book Award-Winning memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, and her Newbery Honor-winning titles After Tupac and D Foster, Feathers, and Show Way. Her picture books The Day You Begin and The Year We Learned to Fly were NY Times Bestsellers. After serving as the Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017, she was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress for 2018–19. She was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 2020. Later that same year, she was named a MacArthur Fellow.
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