Character Development of a Novel’s Hero

By Jerry Waxler

When the protagonist of the novel “Bread Alone” went to work in a bakery, she found her own strength. That’s the central premise of the novel. Through creative striving, through effort and overcoming obstacles, the protagonist grew. In this regard, “Bread Alone” provides an uplifting, even inspiring answer to the question asked by almost every good story, “How did the character grow?” I asked the author Judi Hendricks to tell me more about the importance of the character arc for her and her characters.

Jerry Waxler: Okay. I get that the character Wynter had a different experience in the break up of the marriage than you did in real life, but there is one area of your life that your protagonist seems to accurately reflect. You both went from incomplete people to much more aware and fulfilled people by working in the bakery. As a reader, I love this inner arc, which shows your character’s personal development. This is one of the reasons I read memoirs, to see how people grow, and I’m glad you reflected that part of your life in the novel. I know you’ve said you just follow your characters and your characters tell you what happens, but I wonder if you could say anything specifically about this aspect of story crafting which portrays the growing wisdom of the protagonist as she travels from the beginning of the story to the end.

Judi Hendricks: I should clarify that comment about following my characters to see what happens–I think that applies mainly to specifics of the story, not so much to the character’s arc.  In one class where I workshopped the first few chapters of Bread Alone, one of the other participants said, in essence, “Your main character is a nincompoop.  She’s totally spoiled and clueless and not very likeable.  Why don’t you make her smarter and don’t let her feel so sorry for herself and so entitled?”

My response was, “That’s the whole point of the story.  She has to change and grow or there’s no story.”

I usually have at least a vague idea of how my characters will develop, who they’ll be at the end.  But the things that happen along the way, I discover as I write.

Jerry: Okay, so flash forward. You have written a bunch of novels, and you are actually a writer now. So this whole story would make a great memoir. In the beginning was an unformed young bakery worker who attends a memoir class and realizes she could play with reality. This marks the transition into the next stage in her life. Over the coming years, like Wynter in Bread Alone, the protagonist of this memoir is becoming a deeper person, as she writes novels, and finds her voice, her audience, and her stride as a mature writer.

So if you were to look back and see yourself as the protagonist in this memoir or novel about the birth of a writer, could you offer us a scene, a revelation, a key moment, perhaps at a book signing or the completion of yet another manuscript when you said to yourself something like, “Hey, this is my life. I’m a writer.”

Judi: First of all–what a great idea for a novel!

The realization hit me as I was beginning my second book, Isabel’s Daughter.  I’d gotten a two-book contract from my UK publisher and I had to produce a manuscript in 18 months, whereas I’d had no deadline for Bread Alone and ended up taking four years to write it.  I had only the most nebulous idea for a story and was facing a huge amount of research about New Mexico and art and a bunch of other topics I knew nothing about.  I rented a little house in Santa Fe for a month and my husband and I drove over with all my books and my computer and we had a fun weekend playing tourists, and then Monday morning he got on a plane and went back to L.A. and I freaked out.  I spent most of the day walking around town in a daze, envisioning having to give back my advance.

That night I called my husband, practically in tears and he gave me his best halftime locker room pep talk.  The next morning I sat down at the kitchen table and organized my research materials, outlined a 30-day plan for what I needed to accomplish, read over the story notes I had to date and then I just started to write.  That’s when I knew I was a writer.

Jerry: What are you working on next?

Judi: Part three of Bread Alone– Baker’s Apprentice was part 2..


To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.

More of my interview with Judi Hendricks

A Novelist Plays at the Border of Fact and Fiction

How a Novelist Strives for Authentic Reality

Explore Painful Memories by Writing Fiction

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

How a Novelist Strives for Authentic Reality

By Jerry Waxler

In this part of my interview with novelist Judi Hendricks, I ask her to describe how she walks the line between fact and fiction in her novel “Bread Alone.”

Jerry Waxler: When I read “Bread Alone” I was impressed by how realistic and rich the dialog was. It was just very real. I enjoy dialog that has a rich real flavor, and always wonder how writers do it. How do you bring your dialog to life?

Judi Hendricks: You have no idea how big of a compliment that is. When I first began to write fiction, dialog was the hardest thing for me.  There are so many ways to do it badly, and I did every one of them.  I’ve always been an incorrigible eavesdropper, so at first I tried to write the way people actually talk, which is incredibly boring, full of um and you know and sentence fragments that go nowhere.  I read a lot of novels and books on writing, and I took a lot of classes, and I learned that the biggest problem with my dialog was that it went on far too long.

When you’re writing dialog you have to decide with each conversation between your characters, what exactly is the point of this exchange?  Once you know that, you must ruthlessly cut everything that doesn’t pertain to that point.  And if you don’t know what the point of an exchange is, you have to get rid of the whole conversation, no matter how cool it sounds.  The other thing about dialog is to be constantly aware, and to make the reader aware, that what a character says is not necessarily what she thinks or feels.  Everyone’s got an agenda; every conversation has subtext.  To me, that’s one of the biggest things that brings dialog to life.  This applies to memoir as well as to fiction.

Jerry: I have heard that people often ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” I could see how this line of questioning could lead to a tangle if you have to start explaining which parts are true and which are invented. Maybe that’s why many writers try to dodge the question altogether. How does that work for you?

Judi: “Where do you get your ideas?” is the second most frequently asked question, right after “How did you get your agent?” and I’m always tempted to laugh.  It’s almost like there should be a catalog company with a warehouse in Kansas where you can order ideas over the internet.  My best response is that ideas are organic.  Your life is like a big compost pile full of thoughts, dreams, memories, experiences…all of which lie there and rot and become this very fertile substance from which ideas sprout spontaneously.  As for the truth, that’s a more slippery thing.  I don’t believe that a story has to be real to be true.

Jerry: Do you keep a writing notebook to jot down notes you observe or think? Do you insert snips of overheard conversations into your novels?

Judi: I actually have several notebooks.  One by the bed, one in the car, one in my purse.  As I get older and my memory gets worse, I feel like I have to write down the ideas I don’t want to forget.  A few of my best lines are gems I overheard in an elevator or sitting in a café.  Those are like a gift from the writing gods.

Jerry: Many new writers ask, “What if a character sues or hates me for writing the story?” Obviously you side stepped this issue by writing fiction. It’s what the spies call “plausible deniability.” You could say, “Oh, no. It’s fiction. That wasn’t really you.” But this is a complex mental and emotional game. You must juggle parts of reality with parts of imagination. Did it feel strange distorting real events for the purposes of the story?

Judi: It really is a kind of game…a game of “what if,” like my writing about the robbery. Personally, I’ve never had any trouble distorting or changing or embellishing reality.  When I was growing up I got in trouble for it; now I get paid for it.  Sometimes when I try to write nonfiction it’s harder to remember what actually happened than to recall the little nuances and embroideries I concoct around so many events.

Jerry: Interesting. Experts, like Brian Boyd in “The Evolution of Stories” propose that humans began to tell stories as a sort of cognitive playground where they experiment with alternate scenarios. You seem to be the perfect model for that theory. In “Bread Alone” you turned your imagination loose at the boundaries of reality. So on your fifth novel, how has that connection between life and fiction evolved for you over the years?

Judi: Bread Alone was my first novel, and my most personal one, partly because I actually experienced some of the things I wrote about.  But no matter what I’m writing about, it becomes very real to me. Part of writing fiction is digging deeper and deeper, not just into your characters, but into yourself, mining your own emotions and memories.  You discover your character’s emotional reality by drawing upon your own.  For example, in Isabel’s Daughter, my second novel, the protagonist is a woman who was abandoned as a child, grew up in an orphanage and foster homes.  I’ve never been abandoned; my family was excruciatingly normal, so I don’t know anything about that.  But my experience includes that feeling of not being fully engaged in life, of being an outsider–and it was that feeling I had to mine when I wrote this character.

Everything you write is filtered through your experience, your sensibilities.  Even if it’s a totally fictional story with characters that are completely unlike you, it’s still almost impossible to separate the writer from the work.  That’s why it’s so hard not to read criticism of your work as criticism of yourself.

If I only knew what my thought process was as I tried to figure out the story structure…  It’s the same for me now, working on my fifth novel, as it was with Bread Alone.  I just keep writing to discover what happens.  There’s a certain amount of ceding control to the story, which I know sounds very woo-woo, but there you are.


To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

A Novelist Plays at the Border of Fact and Fiction

by Jerry Waxler

I constantly scan for wisdom that can help me translate my life into story, so I was intrigued recently when  fiction writer Grace Marcus told me about a friend who walked into a memoir class and walked out with an idea for her first novel “Bread Alone.” When author Judi Hendricks agreed to speak to me about her creative process, I prepared by reading the book, about a woman crushed by the betrayal of her husband, went to find herself by baking bread. The novel seemed so rich with the emotional journey of real life, I felt sure that my talk with Judi would be productive. Here is part one of our interview.

Jerry Waxler: So is it true? Did you get the idea from your first novel after attending a memoir class? If so, please share the events and choices that brought you to that conclusion?

Judi Hendricks: I’ve always said my career as a novelist began in a bakery, which seems appropriate, because the longer I practice both writing and baking the more similarities I see between them.  Bread is a process–slow, arduous, messy, unpredictable.  You can say all the same things about a book.  Bread is composed of distinct ingredients, that merge and become dough–a completely different entity which then takes on a life of its own.  A book follows that same process.

In my twenties and thirties, I had so many different jobs.  If there had been such a thing as adult ADD then, I’m sure I would have been diagnosed with it.  I worked as a journalist, then in public relations and advertising.  I worked in public television, then at Delta Airlines, then I had my own travel agency.  I wore suits and carried a briefcase.  I kept thinking everything would be fine if I could just find the right job. When I finally landed at the McGraw Street Bakery in Seattle, I thought I had found my calling.  Which I had–just not in exactly the way I first imagined.

Time and circumstance intervened, and later in a different city I found myself in a creative non-fiction class with an assignment to write an essay about something I loved to do.  I wrote about making bread.  This was almost seven years after my job at the McGraw Street Bakery had ended, and yet all these memories suddenly came flooding back.  The essay became a memoir of my time at the bakery.  I never intended to write anything longer than 30 pages, but something about the piece nagged at me.  I kept rewriting it.  Every time I thought I was finished, it drew me back to the computer.

Jerry: Why did you go to that memoir class? What was your goal?

Judi: Actually my goal was to avoid having to get another job.  I’m not kidding.  I was “between engagements” and I was hoping if I stalled long enough I’d either win the lottery or figure out what I was supposed to be doing.  The only reason I took that particular class was I knew I could write nonfiction because I’d made a living doing it.  I was also sure I couldn’t write fiction because I had a file cabinet full of aborted short stories.

Jerry: What inspired you to flip from nonfiction to fiction?

Judi: It was not a conscious choice.  I remember the exact moment when I crossed the line between memoir and fiction.  I was writing about something that happened at the bakery right after I started working there.  We had a robbery one night, and the police decided that it was an inside job because the cash box was kept in a fairly unusual place, behind the huge tins of baking powder in the store room, and the thief apparently went right to it.

Suspicion immediately fell on our dishwasher–a fifteen-year-old boy–we’ll call him Josh.  His parents had just been through a really nasty divorce, and he was living with his mother, but all he ever talked about was getting enough money together so he could go find his dad in Kansas City.  Coincidentally or not, he disappeared shortly thereafter.  Within a week we had a new dishwasher–a pretty16-year old girl we’ll call Kristi.  This information is totally unrelated to the robbery.  She wasn’t even working there when it happened.
But what if she had been?

Somehow my brain made the leap that it would be more interesting that way.  What if Kristi liked nice clothes and she had an old car that needed repairs and insurance and gas…what if she stole the money and let Josh take the fall?  What if he knew and didn’t tell because he was crazy about her?  Or…what if she took the money for him because she was crazy about him?  Without any conscious decision on my part, I’d just become a fiction writer.  None of this stuff ended up in the book, but it seemed to me that my course was set.

Jerry: Fascinating! You were willing to write about “real life” but with a twist. That’s an interesting intuition. Didn’t it feel strange veering away from reality like this? I’m trying to understand why you wrote fiction instead of just sticking with the facts.

Judi: I never imagined writing about myself anymore than I imagined writing a novel.  Bread and the bakery were just two things I was passionate about.  I think almost everyone has had an experience like that–one of those magical times that exerts an almost gravitational pull on you.  You know there’s a reason for it; you just don’t know what it is.  You keep revisiting it and reliving it in your head until it becomes almost your personal mythology.  For me, the bakery was that experience.

Yes, the thought of writing a novel was daunting.  So for months I didn’t acknowledge that’s what I was doing.  At around 350 pages, it became clear that it had gone beyond a short story, but it was a scary step to admit to myself–much less anyone else–that it might be a book.  That sounded like an engraved invitation to humiliation and failure.  (I do subscribe to that school of thought that says if you don’t admit you’re trying something, then you cannot possibly fail.)

The Scottish astronomer David Brewster said,
“It is a curious circumstance, that when we wish to obtain a sight of very faint star, we can see it most distinctly by looking away from it, and when the eye is turned full upon it, it immediately disappears…”

Focusing on the bakery enabled me to see the story I was trying to tell, framed within the experience of making bread.

This is part one of the interview. In the next part we’ll dig further into the relationship between fact and fiction.

To learn more about Judi Hendricks and her books, click here to visit her website.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.