She Reads Co-Founder, Ariel Lawhon, Brings Us: The Impatient Character

I feel a special kinship with anyone who has started a website or blog or community for the benefit of writers and readers. I’m honored to have Ariel Lawhon here today, the co-founder of She Reads, a national on-line book club.  

Please welcome Ariel to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

She Reads Co-Founder, Ariel Lawhon, Brings Us: The Impatient Character

My biggest reading surprise of 2011 came in the form of Diane Setterfield’s gothic masterpiece, The Thirteenth Tale. Though published in 2008, I somehow managed to miss this novel until last summer when my family took a 1500 mile road trip. I packed five novels in the hopes that one of them would be good. I never made it past the first. And I’m not entirely sure if I spoke to my husband at all during that trip. I was consumed.

In her novel Diane Setterfield introduces us to Vida Winter, a prolific, reclusive author who chooses to tell her life story to a young biographer by the name of Margaret Lea. Vida Winter is one of the most memorable literary characters, and certainly the strongest female character I’ve ever read. She says something in the novel that felt so familiar to me that I’ve never forgotten it:

My study throngs with characters waiting to be written. Imaginary people anxious for life, who tug at my sleeve, crying, ‘Me next! Go on! My turn!’ I have to select. And once I have chosen, the others lie quiet for ten months or a year, until I come to the end of the story, and the clamor starts up again.”

I have experienced that demanding character, but never so intensely as while finishing my recent novel, The Rule of Three.

For months a new story had been nagging at me, creeping in during those moments when my mind was quiet. A long shower. That stretch of thought before drifting off to sleep. The dream that comes in the stillness before waking.

I recall writing a scene from my newly finished novel. It was a particularly tense argument between my Hero (her name is Stella) and Opponent that took place in an old, Jazz-era bar. There they were, leaning across the table in a dark, corner booth, both of them reaching for a tattered envelope containing a long-kept secret. I paused for a moment, fingers lightly touching the keyboard as I mulled a piece of dialogue. And then…

In the far corner of the bar was a woman delivering a baby! Of all the strange and bizarre things, the character in my next novel had walked into my current novel and set up shop. I could see it in my mind, like a fuzzy TV station that’s been caught between two channels, superimposing one face, one story, over another.

Vida describes that sensation best:

And every so often, through all these writing years, I have lifted my head from the page—at the end of a chapter, or in the quiet pause for thought after a death scene, or sometimes just searching for the right word—and have seen a face at the back of the crowd.”

I knew who this character was, of course. Her name is Martha. She’s a midwife. A mother. A diarist. A strong and capable woman if ever there was one. But in that moment she was an intruder. So I gave Martha her own notebook. I scratched down what she was frantically trying to tell me, and I politely escorted her from the premises. Then I shook off her specter and went back to the bar, and my characters bent in heated conversation.

The scene turned out well in case you’re wondering. As did the rest of the novel. But now it’s done. My mind, so battered after wrestling that story to the page, is finally rested. And Martha has renewed her protests, filling all that recently vacated space. It’s time to open her notebook.

There are other faces in the shadows behind Martha of course. A carpenter. A hoarder. A tattoo artist. They are waiting patiently. For now.

Ariel Lawhon is a novelist, blogger, storyteller, and life-long reader. She is also the co-founder of She Reads, a national online book club. Her latest novel, The Rule of Three, is based on the still-unsolved disappearance of a New York State Supreme Court Justice 1930 and is the story of three women who know what happened to him but choose not to tell. Ariel lives in Texas with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). She believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.


4 thoughts on “She Reads Co-Founder, Ariel Lawhon, Brings Us: The Impatient Character

  1. I love this post, Ariel! I think that’s how you know that your characters have really come alive, if they keep showing up in your real life and won’t leave you alone–sometimes writing fiction is more like taking dictation as they take over the page. As I was writing my novel, The Wishing Hill (Penguin 2013), I remember having to take a family vacation (yes, with noisy kids) and leaving the novel behind. Unfortunately, I had left one of the characters sitting on the edge of a pool, shivering in her bathing suit as a man tries to chat her up, and that whole vacation, I kept thinking, “I have to let Claire get out of the pool and put some clothes on!” I finally had to jot down the next scene on a scrap of paper that I carried in my purse for the rest of the vacation, just so Claire would be warm and leave me alone!


  2. Ariel, This is such a great post! You sold me on the novel, “Thirteenth Tale” .I have to try and find it.
    Your novel also,sounds very interesting., “The Rule of Three”. Thanks for sharing!!


  3. I started a novel (sitting in a doc file unfinished) that though it is fiction, it also blurred the edges of fiction and reality and I wrote it so close to my “writing life” — I even used my own name, and how “I” seemed to be descending into this sort of madness – this “between world” of real people and the fiction people – who come to me and demand I tell their story and when I don’t get it right, they hound me to change their story and I won’t – or once when I do, the outcome is still the same, just as in real life – anyway – laughing – I may never finish that work but that’s such a metaphor for how it is – how sometimes our characters seem more real than “real people” – how our life is consumed by who they are and what they do and where they go, while all the while we are sitting at a glowing screen, mesmerized, anyone who would see us would see someone mad – gone – beyond hope.


  4. Ariel – Great post. I think many writers are murmuring and shouting out – yes, it’s just like that for me! My demanding characters often come in twos and are talking, talking talking. Sometimes (*cough* often, maybe) the real people in my life seem to be chattering uninteresting nonsense and I want to tell them to just *shut up already!* so I can listen harder to what my characters are saying. I laughed at katmagendie’s comment. I think a lot of writers would love to read that piece, if it ever makes it out there. A kind of poetic descent into madness.


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