Saturday, July 16, 2022

Writing Characters that Matter to Our Readers

by Emme Gannon @GannonEmme

It isn’t often that we read a novel where the characters are so three-dimensional that while we inwardly scorn some of them for their impertinence, they have the power to turn back at us and eerily point their finger as if to say, I see in you what you see in me. For me, the late Rosamunde Pilcher’s 1987 split-time fiction, The Shell Seekers, had that affect. 

The Shell Seekers is one of Ms. Pilcher’s most famous best sellers. It was nominated in 2003 as one of the top 100 novels in the BBC’s Big Read. The book sold more than five million copies worldwide and was adapted for the stage and twice for a television film.

Well-written stories like The Shell Seekers so capture our imagination that our days revolve around staging time to return once again to the character’s lives. At last we realize the reason for the magnetic pull. Parts of the characters that we loathe jump from the page and reveal traits hidden in us. Like a phantom ghost, they had not been seen. Until now. 

The Shell Seekers is a family saga that tells the story of Penelope Keeling as she reflects on her life and her relationship with her adult children. As an older woman, she desires to be independent but when she is confronted with her own mortality by a health scare, she longs to visit the seaside village of Porthkerris in Cornwell, where she had lived with her artist father and French mother during World War II. She asks her three children to accompany her on this nostalgic journey but they all have excuses why they cannot go. When it looks as though Penelope’s quest is lost, two young friends agree to accompany her on her journey, changing the lives of them all.

Each of the characters in Penelope’s life tells their own story in their POV, allowing the reader to see the layers of their personalities and character and how their story intertwines into the tapestry of Penelope’s life. 

It is there in the chapter of each character’s story that we have the opportunity to find pieces of ourselves: Nancy’s greed, Noel’s selfishness, Olivia’s tough but vulnerable nature. All those characteristics that often underlie the feeble excuses we give for being unable to step outside of ourselves and give love to another. It’s boldly there for us to see. By now, we are so connected to these alter egos of ourselves that we cannot separate from them. We must read to see if there’s hope for them and for us. 

The Shell Seekers addresses the intense and often misunderstood relationship between a mother and her children and Penelope’s brave decision to let go of the burden of changing hearts that would not be changed. Instead, she decides to go back to Cornwell, a place where her parent’s love and support provided the unconditional love she now so longed for. Perhaps there she will discover how to re-connect the pieces of her broken heart.

Each time I read The Shell Seekers, I feel empowered, not so much by how the characters react to the challenges of life, but by the question that lingers when the book is closed. What would have happened if some of the characters had not given into their selfish desires. Their story is told. Ours is not. There’s hope. We were able to see a part of ourselves in the fragmented mirror of Penelope’s children, as well as the young couple who reached out to help bring Penelope’s dream to fruition. Tomorrow is a new day. We have the wonderful opportunity to choose life and love where bits of selfishness and greed once darkened our soul. 

Books like The Shell Seekers, with characters that clash against the main character’s driving desire to love and be loved, are stories that touch all of us who allow ourselves to be absorbed in a story world. The power of story changes lives. That is our challenge as writers.

Writing Characters that Matter to Our Readers, insight from @GannonEmme on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Emme Gannon is a wife, mother, and grandmother who loves to write stories that stir the heart. Her award-winning writing has appeared in Focus on the Family magazine, several anthologies, and numerous newsletters. She just completed her first novel.

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  1. I loved the Shell Seekers when I read it. Now I'm going to have to go back and read it again. Thank you for taking an Author's tour through the book and revealing the lessons we can learn about writing three-dimensional characters from Rosamunde Pilcher. Blessings, Ann

    1. Thank you for your kind comments, Ann. I often go back and read The Shell Seekers. In fact I traded in my well-used paperback for a hard cover. Enjoy your new read and be blessed always with the insights we have into ourselves through a good story. Blessings always.