How to Develop Characters and their Objects in a Novel
by Jack Remick
To write this story, I started with the idea that one character, Gabriela, was thin, while the other, The Widow, was thick. I use “objects” in this novel to build both emotional attachments between characters and to push the story line along to its conclusion. I want to emphasize that this is a preliminary working of the topic which developed more in the course of writing the novel. By focusing on the objects in a story and their relationship to character, you can go deeper into the emotional reality associated with objects. In this, fictional characters share an aspect of the sentimental life of people and that helps to make them whole.
Step One: Emotional Attachment to objects.
The main object in Gabriela and The Widow is the List that Gabriela has to keep for La Viuda.
Boxes: carved, painted, decorated, engraved, different kinds of wood, metal. Each box comes and goes in the story: some days, La Viuda wants to examine the painted box with photos, other days the walnut box decorated with silver and gold hammered flowers, still others the engraved rosewood box.
Gold coins—The irony in Gabriela and The Widow is that the objects of betrayal—the coins—are eternal while the objects of fidelity—the flowers—are transient and fragile..
Photographs—are an index to La Viuda’s journey through time. There are two kinds of photographs—dated and titled and undated and untitled. As Gabriel straightens out the List, the photos play a big part in fixing the dates and times of events in La Viuda’s life.
Step Two: Physical associations to objects.
Toe nail/fingernail clippings—are an index to La Viuda’s obsession with her body. She has Gabriela catalog and store her toe nail and finger nail clippings which are color coded.
Hidden panels in large boxes—the hidden panels are an index to the layers in the story. There are two life stories in this novel: Gabriela’s journey to El Norte, and La Viuda’s life journey and all her trials.
Flowers—are an index to El Señor’s character and his guilt.
Jewelry—these are an index to the secrets of stones and gems. Using the history of jewelry, La Viuda initiates Gabriela into the mystery of pearls, rings, earrings, rubies.
Sable coat—this object is an index to La Viuda’s deepest secret. We learn that all the sables used to make the coat are female. In that all-female relationship echoed in that of La Viuda and Gabriela.
Each object moves through the story to reveal deeper secrets that lead to the climax when Gabriela puts on the sable coat.
Step Three: Secrets of the Boxes
The Boxes: There are six boxes in La Viuda’s house. One is in her bedroom. It is an elaborate carved and inlaid box about one meter tall. It folds open in half. In each half there are jewels. It opens when she presses an in laid butterfly in the top. Necklaces, earrings, rings, pearls, rubies, wrist watches.
Each half holds another hidden panel that is released by a hidden pressure lock in one of the intricate designs one of which is the eye spot on a butterfly’s wings. In the secret panels, the jewels are more expensive and each object has its own history.
There are several smaller boxes, all carved from exotic woods from exotic jungles and each box has a history.
One box about thirty by thirty cms contains the photographs of La Viuda all taken on her “travels’ as she calls them.
One box is made of tawa—a hard black wood from the Ecuadorian rain forest. It is inlaid with the stylized face of a jaguar whose eyes are made of rubies and whose fangs are made of piranha bones. This box contains the articles of her body that La Viuda saves-all her toenail and fingernail clippings held in an inside box of silver filigree. In the box she has placed her teeth—all from childhood as well as the ones she has replaced through time—wisdom teeth extracted, gold caps and crowns replaced. There are tresses of her hair clipped at different times in her life, each tress in an envelope dated and noted with time and place of its cutting to give another layer to the chronology.
Another box contains all her letters and links to the List of Places. La Viuda tries to remember all the places she has lived—her memory is fading—and she uses Gabriela to create the List of Places and they use the letters and the hair tresses to build the list with dates.
Yet another box contains other photographs—these without dates—so one element is the Subtext of Time. Another element is place. As La Viuda recreates the chronology of her life we see pictures of her in exotic places—some in color, some black and white—from Yucatan to Catal Huyuk the ruins of the oldest city in the world in Turkey.
After the boxes which reveal secrets, we turn to the physical transformation.
Gabriela has her own objects, but they are few and very simple:
A necklace made of Oaxacan black ware beads. This necklace open Gabriela’s backstory. Another object is a vergonzosa (prayer plant) pressed and dried. The third object is a pair of gold-wire earrings that Gabriela wears.
Step Four: The Story Line Connected to Objects
As the two story lines intertwine and alternate we see or hear about Gabriela’s remembered objects—her hair, the gold earrings are physical—and we see the village she came from, her bare feet. This all indexes the polarity of Wealth/Poverty or Complex/Simple that runs through the story.
The Gold Coins:
These gold coins hide the deepest secret. After one year, Gabriela has La Viuda’s confidence. She instructs Gabriela to go to a secret compartment in the house and in that compartment there is another box—it is a plain metal box made of silver. It contains 25 gold coins. Each coin has a story but all the stories are about the affairs El Señor carried on all the time he was married to La Viuda. Each time he was unfaithful, he brought La Viuda a gold coin. The crown jewel of the collection is a gold commemorative struck with the profile of Maximilian. Each coin has a value far greater than its actual gold content.
The husband never came home without a bouquet of flowers. La Viuda read him—she tells this to Gabriela—by his gifts. Flowers were gifts of love for her, coins were atonement. Neither of them had to say a thing. The code was clear.
The Sable Coat:
The sable coat appears in a photo of La Viuda in Red Square. We see her wearing the coat and high leather boots. She has her arm in that of a man. Gabriela asks if that is El Señor and La Viuda says no—there are no photos of him This is the father of Liah, her daughter. The sable coat enters the story again as an object in time when Liah herself the widow of a rich man, brings it to La Viuda one day. La Viuda instructs Gabriela to put on the coat.
We see Gabriela in the coat. She is a tall, thin exotic woman with almond eyes and a slanted forehead and high cheek bones. La Viuda tells her she is exactly the kind of woman El Señora found exciting.
Step Five : Objects and their Relationship to Lost Memory
As La Viuda completes her List of Places, her memory fades until she can only with difficulty remember who she is talking to.
The last object in the story is the Will.
In the will, La Viuda has left all her jewels, the sable coat, and her gold coins to Gabriela.
The house and the rest of her estate she has left to her dying daughter Liah.
La Viuda dies in her bed with Gabriela beside her. The List is Complete. All the Secrets revealed.
The final image is of Gabriela as she stands beside La Viuda’s coffin at the funeral. Her hair shines, she wears a black silk dress, high heels, a pearl necklace. Bright red lips.
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Genre – Women’s Fiction
Rating – PG
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