Nan Cuba’s novel Body and Bread (Engine Books), won the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award. It was listed as one of “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now” in O, Oprah’s Magazine, and was a “Summer Books” choice from Huffington Post. Cuba co-edited Art at our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists (Trinity University Press), and published other work in Quarterly West, Columbia, Antioch Review, Harvard Review, and storySouth. She is founder and executive director emeritus of Gemini Ink, a nonprofit literary center, and teaches in the MA/MFA Program in Literature, Writing, and Social Justice at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, where she is writer-in-residence.
On April 18, Nan is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Creating Sympathetic Characters” at St. Edward’s University. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Nan Cuba: I had no training when I began writing. One day, my husband said, “You read more than any person I know. Why don’t you write a book?” I told him how ridiculous that was, but the idea stuck. I was lucky as a journalist and got published, but my articles began to read like stories with a beginning, middle, and end. So I enrolled in an MFA program, which changed my life.
Scribe: What is your favorite style of writing? Either to read or to write yourself.
NC: Most of the time, I read and write literary fiction. These are stories that can be any genre, but they use language the way poetry does and they focus on characters rather than plot. They can be compared to independent films that look closely at people’s lives. In this way, literary fiction wrestles with what it means to be human, encouraging empathy and tolerance, since the reader usually identifies with characters unlike them and then walks in the characters’ shoes.
Scribe: Your class is about creating sympathetic characters. What do you believe happens if a protagonist is unsympathetic? Can a novel still function this way?
NC: All characters must be complex and unique. They begin as a combination of types (Texan, Hispanic, teenager, wheelchair bound, Catholic, studies insects, does imitations, etc.), but they must have psychological weaknesses as well as attributes. In contemporary fiction, the anti-hero is popular, primarily because readers can identify with imperfect people trying to overcome their flaws. As a result, these characters can appear unpleasant, even irritating. However, that doesn’t mean the reader won’t enjoy watching them. All that’s required is that the character be interesting and have at least one personality trait the reader can relate to.
Scribe: Why do readers need to feel sympathy? Can they connect with a story without it?
NC: Readers want to identify with the protagonist so that character must have some way for the reader to connect. Think of the Jack Nicholson character, Mac McMurphy, in the movie, One Flew Over the Cuckcoo’s Nest. Most of us wouldn’t want to hang with him, but the’s the story’s hero is trying to correct a wrong, so we cheer him throughout the story.
Scribe: Do you ever read a novel and think to yourself “I don’t care about this character, but I would if she did___ and ___”? Are you hyper-aware of character development in that sense?
NC: I practice and teach my students to practice becoming a better writer by analyzing craft while reading. So, yes, I notice a character’s ability to draw the reader’s interest. That can almost always happen if an unlikable character has a vulnerability and/or recognizes her flaws and attempts to address them.
— Thanks, Nan!