Sonia Levitin

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Sonia Levitin

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[A writer does two things when he introduces the dimension of memory]. First, your hero's personality and his motivations become clear. Because of the widespread knowledge of modern psychology, the writer cannot ignore motivation. It is no longer enough to describe how a character acts and feels; readers want to know why.

Secondly, the use of memories can become the fine-edged tool of the writer's craft. Memories bridge time and distance, heighten tension, reveal character, sharpen the moment of climax. These are only a few of the technical bonuses we reap when we use the characters' memories to our advantage as storytellers. (p. 18)

Just how much of a character's life hinges on memories can be revealing in itself. In my book for young people, Journey to America (… 1970), a minor character, the cook, is characterized largely by the fact that he lives in memories….

[We] know what to expect of the cook as the story unfolds. He is kindly but ineffective, living as he does, mainly in his memories. And again, this memory provides a bonus. The cook's preoccupation with the past symbolizes the more universal disorientation of the total refugee experience. The present is unbearable, the future unthinkable. Only the past holds comfort.

In the same book, a memory is used to bring contrast to a present situation, thereby heightening its impact. At the camp, where the girls are neglected and starved, Lisa agrees to scrub the floor in exchange for a bar of chocolate. Her weariness and sorrow are shown….

By remembering the security and love of the past, Lisa's present circumstances are rendered even more distressing. It seems natural that in moments of pain we look back on past pleasures; in moments of joy we briefly remember sorrow. Each emotion, once felt and now remembered, brings its counterpart into sharper focus.

In the same book, the very lack of a memory is used to show the depth of an experience. Near the end of the story, when their passports to America are secured, four-year-old Annie tells the American consul:

"My Papa's waiting for me in America…. But…. I don't think I remember his face."

Annie's inability to remember something so basic emphasizes the impact of their ordeal. At the end of the story, Annie's first comment to her father, after nearly a year of separation, is, "Are you my Papa? Are you really?"

Thus, character can be revealed by the nature of what is not remembered. (p. 20)

The writer's goals are to interpret and to entertain. To this end he must create a believable illusion. He must capture a portion of time and space, hold it suspended in an artistic semblance of reality. This he cannot do unless his characters seem to move and breathe through the pages. To achieve this goal the writer will employ every device, use every possible dimension. He will even pick over his own memories and give them freely to his make-believe people. And the more the writer uses memories, the more they multiply. (p. 46)

Sonia Levitin, "Characters with a Fourth Dimension" (copyright © 1972 by The Writer Inc.; reprinted by permission of the author and The Writer), in The Writer, Vol. 85, No. 8, August, 1972, pp. 18-20, 46.

The word Croatoan carved on a tree was the only clue left by the vanished Roanoke colony, and Levitin projects into this cryptic message a happy ending for orphaned apprentice William Wythers [in Roanoke: A Novel of the Lost Colony]…. William's ability to slip peacefully into the ways of Croatoan after the destruction of Roanoke—through hunger and measles and Indian attacks—is no doubt overly romanticized, but the English settlers have a kind of warty individuality that makes them both realistic and ultimately dispensable to William, while his observations—though influenced by his own isolation—are often strikingly acute. (pp. 691-92)

"Young Adult Fiction: 'Roanoke: A Novel of the Lost Colony'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1973 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 13, July 1, 1973, pp. 691-92.

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