Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Grace-filled Tuesdays (Book Club "Meeting" #5): Character Development in Finding Grace

When it comes to novels (the reading of which is one of life's great pleasures--am I right?), it's the characters that are most important to me.  The characters keep me reading a book--not the plot twists and turns, no matter how exciting or compelling they might be.  If I don't care about the people to whom things are happening in the story, then I just can't make myself care about what's happening. Period.  I've given up on books for that one reason alone: because the people who are driving the action don't seem real, or even if they do, I don't like or connect with them enough to stick around and find out their fate.

I had several worries when my first novel, Finding Grace, went to print in 2012 and I knew it was going to be--gulp!-- "out there," open to possible criticism and negative reviews.  One worry was that readers might find my writing too plain.  You see, I don't use a lot of awe-inspiring metaphors in my prose (a style I often admire in the writing of other authors); and I don't spend a lot of time using detailed brushstrokes to paint a clear picture of what the scenery looks like, or the buildings, or even the physical appearance of the characters themselves.  (Did you see what I did there?  I used a metaphor!)

But because character development is the #1 thing I look for in novels myself, my biggest concern of all when it came to Finding Grace was that readers wouldn't like or be able to relate to my characters, or that the conversations between them wouldn't ring true. Or mostly that they would put the book down when they hadn't even gotten that far into it, because they just couldn't care enough about Grace Kelly or Tom Buckley or Jimmy Sullivan or any of the rest of the rather large cast of characters that populate this lengthy novel.

My husband (who has not one infinitesimal speck of bias where I'm concerned, of course) couldn't stop gushing about what a great job I'd done in the character development department.  But I couldn't take his word for it (sorry, big guy).  I know he thinks I can do no wrong; but I realized that there might be plenty of readers who would think otherwise.

You can imagine, then, how gratified I was to read some of the kind reviews of my first "baby" when they appeared on the book's Amazon page--reviews that contained comments such as this one, from Catholic author Therese Heckenkamp: "The characters are fully developed, easy to relate to, and real. Grace's relationships with her parents, her many brothers, and her friends, are genuine. Readers will become invested in Grace's fate, and yearn for her to win her true love in the end."  Therese's assessment made my heart sing, because that was my dearest wish--that readers would become invested in the fate of my characters, who had all taken on lives of their own by the time I finished the manuscript and had become my special friends.
Here's another positive comment about character development in Finding Grace, by Catholic author Kari Burke: "Amazingly with such a large cast of characters, Pearl does a wonderful job of developing each of them so thoroughly and making each one so unique and memorable that I had no trouble keeping them all straight in my mind."  What wonderful words to hear!  When I started out, with just a few main characters who'd already taken shape in my imagination, I had no idea that I would end up adding so many secondary characters and storylines to this novel, and I'm thrilled that Kari doesn't think they got lost in the shuffle.

In March, I was fortunate to be able to host a book signing at our parish church, where I displayed and sold copies of both my second novel, Erin's Ring (which tells the history of that very church and the Irish immigrants who were responsible for having it built), and my first novel, Finding Grace.
An author who is a good friend of my husband's youngest brother once told me that sometimes you have to write a second book before people discover your first one.  And I think that's what happened at the parish book signing, where about a dozen copies of Finding Grace found their way into the hands of fellow parishioners who'd come out in support of Erin's Ring and didn't even know I'd written another book first.  Here are some excerpts from a sweet email I received recently from Chris Deutsch, a lovely woman whose kids attended the same Catholic high school my boys did: "The characters are very well drawn...I thought the Perlmann story particularly good...with an excellent depiction of Mrs. P as she revealed her sad history.  I could picture her physical posture as she talked through all that pain with a young teenager."

I was so touched by Chris's comments, because Abe and Miriam Perlmann are very beloved characters to me.  They were inspired by a story my mom once told me about a Jewish couple with whom she and my dad were friends: this couple had lost many loved ones in the Holocaust, and Mom said they refused to ride in German-made cars.  That was the jumping off point for the Perlmann story line, and the rest is completely fictional.  It was one of the hardest parts of the book to write--in fact, I put off tackling it for quite some time, even after I'd researched the historical part and come up with a rough outline for what was going to happen.  It was very important to me to make the Perlmanns and their ordeal seem real, so I'm glad that Chris was able to connect with "Mrs. P."

If you've read Finding Grace, is there a character that resonated in a special way with you?  If so, who and why?

Personally, like Grace I've got a soft spot for Tom Buckley, who was inspired by this good-looking young stud (who just happens to be the great love of my life, the high school boyfriend who is now my husband of almost 35 years).
 My "McDreamy"
To distinguish him from my brown-haired husband, I made Tom a blond, like my oldest son (although I did give him my hubby's tooth gap!). But it didn't take long for Tom to become a totally unique person to me, separate from my best guy.  It's true what they say about the characters novelists create: they take on lives of their own, they really do.
If you haven't read Finding Grace, do you have a favorite literary character from some other work (a grace-filled one, I hope)?  Please share--I love discussing fiction with fellow bookworms!


  1. Laura, I loved Finding Grace, but I also just loved Erin's Ring! The characters are wonderful and I was able to picture them in my mind as I was reading. The story made me cry a few times, which in my mind makes for a good story! I love both of your books.....you need to write another!! LOL

    1. You can't eve know how much your support and enthusiasm has meant to me! And I said I'd never write a second book, then I did...so never say "never," I guess! ;)

  2. I liked Mr and Mrs Kelly. Good parenting examples are hard to find in books and it gives me something to aspire to!

    1. Madeline, I am so happy to hear that you liked Grace's parents!! I loved writing them; as a parent of grown kids, I thought it was so important to have that parent perspective, too--not just to have everything seen through the eyes of Grace and her teenaged peers.

      Jack Kelly is one of my favorite characters in the book. He started out as a sort of combination of my favorite dads--my husband, my dad, my husband's dad--in the sense that he says things they might say. And I love Peggy, too. When I started out, I wanted there to be a certain distance between Grace and her mom; but I realized that Peggy couldn't be a "Cruella DeVille"-type woman, because then it wouldn't make sense that a great guy like Jack would have fallen in love with and married her. I wanted her to be a loving mother, but just to have that secret preference for her sons that keeps her from feeling as close to Grace. But then as the book goes on, you can see the mother-daughter bond getting stronger.