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Character Shading

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

A Session with Leora Skolkin Smith

I once attended a lecture by the East German writer, Christa Wolf because I was profoundly shaken by her slim novel, The Quest for Christa T. When an audience member asked her what propelled her to develop and stay with a character in one of her stories, she said, though I am paraphrasing “I write exactly about what my unconscious resists. Write what you resist. That is your story.”

To further embellish her remarks I would add, What I am most afraid of revealing and exposing about myself or about the character I am probing, those secrets become the shading, the shadows, and the depths of my characters. I draw on sources from my own psyche, which makes my exploring of those depths sometimes taxing but often exciting and cathartic.

I would recommend two important exercises and I think these have been cited so often they may sound familiar. The first is keeping a dream book beside you. Waking from dream-life is one of the writer’s most immediate but elusive tools. A fleeting image can be a key to a puzzle and we can easily miss it, because it evaporates as soon as we awaken. I liken it to trying to keep a kite in the air: we lose the string and the kite flies away into the faraway sun. Try as best you can to write the image if you can’t remember the whole dream. For my novel Hystera, I dreamt endlessly about railroad tracks and luggage. I was often naked and lost in the dreams. Like Christa Wolf, I resisted these  images, but they led me into deepening my character. Hystera is the story of a young woman suffering a nervous breakdown. I had to rely on primary processes, to draw from myself primitive images. The railroad tracks and suitcases eventually figured beautifully into my narrative.

As Lilly, my main character, gets well, railroad tracks, luggage, and roads leading to nowhere were, I believe, images in my unconscious depicting a road to health. Lilly was carrying a lot of “baggage,” and I was able to use that baggage in my story. I had become, through the many months so engaged and immersed in my character, almost interchangeable with her.


She drifted into thoughts like a dream, imagining herself stranded at a train depot because she had missed her train. She was lugging around what was left of her possessions from the hospital which she had left to go home, and no one was helping her carry them. She then followed a man through a labyrinth of tracks—all to catch this train that the man said was running now from a different station to take her home. Her bags and suitcases were breaking in her arms. If she didn’t catch the train, she would have nothing of her possessions, she thought, and she would be lost in endlessness.


Another important way to fuel your unconscious with images that you can later draw from naturally and organically is by reading. Depending on what you’re writing, I feel that reading gives us a memory bank of imagery that stays deposited and comes forth almost without warning or deliberateness. I fed myself poetry and the work of many novelists I admired who had written about mental illness and had made unique images and metaphors. In terms of character shading, imagery, unique imagery (whether from reading, dreaming, or otherwise) and metaphor provide a depth unmatched by any other writing tools or devices. Imagery and metaphors like dreams reach into the sexual and subconscious forces that propel characters. Again, those dark places we perhaps resist and that so many novels avoid for an easier prose.  In every “great” book I’ve read, the author has taken me into these deeper realms of the psyche, and even in nineteenth century work, sexuality has been there, indirectly. I do not mean to say that sexuality has to be overt or overstated, but that  a lot of our lives are driven by sexuality and our illicit hungers, and to skip those motivations in our characters deprives us as writers and readers of a lot of substance to work from. So I ask myself often, what is bothering this character? What is his or her distress? Their unhappiness and drive? And I look for answers in the realms of desires and needs, confusion and chaos; sex, love, and aggression – all those uncomfortable places of being. Or as Christa Wolf has said, I try to feel where I myself am resisting to look, perhaps made uncomfortable by their raw humanness. Then I write through that resistance.

An example of how I used imagery and metaphor to evoke a mental disturbance in Hystera is below. My young female character was profoundly sexually confused, traumatized by a suffocating mother and the loss of a father in an accident she felt responsible for. But to go deeper, to add character shading, through dreams, searching, digging, breaking through resistances, I came up with one central image that dug further to express her entire psychic disorder. Deeper than just a traumatic disorder it was a whole breakdown of her soul and flesh; her potential womanhood was stalled. This is what I used to express Lilly’s mass confusion about herself and her sexuality:


When Lilly rose, she set her alarm clock to time her writing. She had to look for work in the neighborhood before her afternoon classes started at Sarah Lawrence College. All of a sudden, Lilly felt that she needed to urinate urgently. She pulled down her panties when she got inside the tiny bathroom, and the rounded bulb was nestled between her thighs. She thought, first, it was not a part of her, but when she put her finger to touch it, it was her own labia swelling into the shape of a large teardrop. She stood, staring at it, and the need to empty her bladder vanished.

Sitting on the toilet seat cover, still undressed, she had waited nearly an hour for her illumination to pass. And then she wasn’t so much afraid as beguiled by the presence of this phantom part that seemed to carry within itself a trembling she could not control. The mysterious bulb filled her along with the salty bathroom air – the tiles and salmon-pink walls bringing her into a wild sense of being in and out of reality. It was as if she had fallen a long way down into her own immense confusion. The hole she found herself in was a sea – shadows and currents. Later she had only a fragile clarity of what the bulb had looked like that first time in the bathroom, and how it had breathed as a part of her in the beginning.

Lilly looked back on this as the morning when her world changed, the morning she finally fell apart, and her being, shifting in and out of reality, became so sensitive that it ached along with the bulb.



Exercise 1 Using a recent dream you’ve had, create a scene in which a main character is described performing an action. This can be part of a story, the beginning of a story to be developed, or an end to a story already partly written. The dream material should add depth to the emotional state of the character, or provide motivation for the action.


Exercise 2 Describe a character’s illicit desire. This desire should be out of the norm, something one might be ashamed of every admitting.


Exercise 3 Describe a character or situation that you are fascinated with, but that have felt too afraid of writing about, and tell yourself you are just writing about it for yourself.



About the Author…

“Skolkin-Smith’s alchemy is to inhabit her characters even as she crafts a riveting story that is nothing short of brilliant,” said Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You. Reviewers and readers agree that Skolkin-Smith’s work is a remarkable blend of literary mastery and profound observation. It is a combination that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.

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