Characters With “A Confusing Grace”

In The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje speaks of his POV character’s regard for another as revealing “a confusing grace.” This phrase confirmed something important I had seen in both characters without having thought of it myself. It’s beauty and accuracy touched my heart.

Can you think of a time in your reading or writing when you have had such a strong response to a revealing phrase about a character? I’m certain the answer is yes, and I’d like to hear about it. Other readers and writers might, too.

Looking back at my novel, Boundaries, I see confusing grace in both POV characters. I wonder whether my readers will feel that way about Ben, when right after his chance encounter with Sydney but before their planned date and the consummation of their affair, he learns that she will become his client. Only at their first appointment does he reveal the truth, throwing her into a rage. As the reader will soon see, she has no other reasonable choice but to accept his representation in her case to regain the custody of her young son. To give even more tension to the story (I hope), Sydney enters the affair with great reluctance, given that she has come to town to meet the attorney she could not have known would become her lover.

This is an example of the tension a story can build when the reader learns something one character knows but the other does not. It’s great fun for the writer to discover this when he is following his nose. But that’s another matter.

What unfolds is Ben and Sydney’s questionable conduct as lawyer and client and the jeopardy it puts them in. They join in a series of unethical choices that readers are likely to believe will prohibit Ben from giving objective advice and Sydney from being able to rationally assess it. I hope the confusing grace I find in them will allow readers to follow them in spite of the mistakes they make in the name of whatever readers believe about them: that they suffer from the dangers of passion; that they lack common sense; that they are trapped in patterns established in their pasts; or that they respond appropriately to overwhelming odds in a hostile environment. I hope readers will give them a try.

Don’t worry about that. I will be happy enough for you to share an example or two of “a confusing grace” in stories you loved reading or ones you have written.


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