Writers have many ways to create characters. We imagine the past experiences and conflicts (backstory) that gave our invented people specific responses to the world. We assign goals, both practical and emotional, then imagine the beliefs that inspire those goals and the obstacles that prevent the character from attaining them. Even minor characters need clear objectives if they are to play a part in the larger narrative. Much of this preparation remains—or ought to remain—invisible to the reader, but without it, what should be a richly populated story world becomes no more than a tale of cardboard cutouts moving implausibly along ill-defined paths. The resulting book is, as writers say, “flat.” Readers just toss it aside as uninteresting.
One powerful means of individualizing a character focuses on that character’s interests. Painters experience the world differently from dancers, athletes from musicians. A fashion designer notices clothes; a scholar may listen for new and provocative ideas. A physician instinctively assesses the bodies of others for signs of health, malnutrition, or disease. Most people have more than one interest, allowing a thoughtful author to combine these varying approaches to create distinct, well-rounded people. Time period, setting, culture all add to the mix.
In the case of Tasa’s Song, the subject of my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Linda Kass, the heroine studies the violin. Indeed, she is something of a prodigy. Her instrument appears on the cover and is implied in the title—although Tasa’s song includes more than music. Right in the opening scene, we learn that the violin is her most precious possession and understand how terrified she must be to hear that the Nazis are almost on her doorstep when she almost leaves it behind. Throughout the book, pieces of music enter her head as she faces incidents both joyful and dreadful: Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher (Memory of a Beloved Place) as she flees the SS; Peter and the Wolf as she lies in hiding while soldiers walk back and forth over her head; Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs in a moment of triumph. When Shostakovich replaces Chopin, we know both that the Soviets have taken over her school and how she feels about their occupation. The arrival of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons indicates a quite different state of mind.
It’s all very well done, and the author and I discuss the topic at some length in the interview. So give it a listen. As always, the podcasts are free, although there are suggestions on the website for ways in which you can support the New Books Network. And check back in a few weeks for another, very different musical discussion when I interview Martha Conway about her latest novel, Sugarland, set in Jazz Age Chicago. Kirkus Reviews calls it “an absorbing whodunit full of gangsters and glitz,” but the heroine is a pianist in a band, so there has to be a little jazz in there somewhere.
As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
Although the Holocaust inflicted extreme brutality wherever it occurred, the specific events associated with the violence differed from one place to another. In Tasa’s Song (She Writes Press, 2016), Linda Kass weaves stories of her own mother’s life in eastern Poland under Soviet and Nazi occupation to create a universal story of suffering and survival.
Tasa Rosinski is a violinist, a child prodigy living in the Polish village of Podkamien, when Adolf Hitler is elected chancellor of Germany in 1933. At ten, her world revolves around school, music, and play—secure amid a loving family, friendly neighbors, and a teasing older cousin who has become her best friend. But as Tasa matures into adolescence and moves to the nearby town of Brody for schooling, the influence of antisemitism on her native Poland grows steadily. Life becomes increasingly unsafe for a Jewish girl, however gifted.
In 1939, just before the outbreak of war, the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact transfers Tasa’s region to Soviet control. The USSR invades: demands for socialist realism eliminate the study of Polish literature, Marxist-Leninist ideology replaces religion, and students with questionable political connections disappear from the school. The Soviets deport several of Tasa’s relatives to Siberia. Yet Tasa and those close to her will soon recast their oppressors as liberators. Because in June 1941, Hitler orders his forces to attack the USSR, turning Tasa’s home into a battleground.