Origami for Authors

Nihon no hanga

The canal house is built of massive grey cornerstones and variegated red bricks. A clock gable stands on top with a hook sticking out. The hook is for hoisting of pianos and wardrobes and king-sized beds. The doors are too narrow and the stairs so vertiginous for anything wider than a laundry basket to pass.

Japanese doll
Bride at Japanese Print Collection, Amsterdam. Photo credit: Karen Kao.

Inside this house hides the private collection of Elise Wessels. For decades, she’s travelled to Japan, bringing back woodblock prints. Her museum Nihon no hanga is a treasure house of Japanese art from the full suit of armor that sits menacingly in the entry hall to the bridal couple who adorn the mantelpiece upstairs.

But it’s the print collection we’ve come to see.

one hundred aspects of the moon

Japanese printmaker
Signature and seal of Yoshitoshi. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi was a master woodcut printmaker (1839-1892) widely acclaimed for his collection, One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. He depicts events from Japanese history, Chinese myth, Noh theater and daily life in Edo in the late 19th century.

Print #12 Moon above the sea at Daimotsu Bay – Benkei. Image source: Japanese Print Collection

Here is his print Moon above the Sea at Daimotsu Bay. The warrior-priest Musashibo Benkei stands at the helm. He exorcises the demons who have conjured up this storm. Thus is his master miraculously saved from shipwreck in the year 1185.

I see the black mountain of water, the foaming clouds and the cleaving of the waves. Suddenly I’m no longer in a Japanese print museum but in a theater full of 6 year olds watching Kubo and the Two Strings, a 3D stop-motion animation film by Laika Studios.

magical origami

The movie opens with the same scene. The waves threaten to crush a woman and her child. But she is unafraid. She cuts the water with the music of her magical two-stringed samisen. And when her child Kubo grows up, he too learns to make magic. He can bring origami figures to life.

Movie poster. Image source: deadicatedfans.com

My origami always died. My cranes nose-dived or simply disemboweled themselves as soon as I let go of those tightly folded sheets. And the thing about origami paper: you’ve only got one chance to do it right.

character folding

Not so with characters, as Rebecca Makkai explains in her craft essay, The Delicate Art of Character Folding. You populate your novel with all the characters you think you need to prop up your plot. Then you discover to your horror that a cast of thousands now clutters up the pages of your story. Or that some of them consist of cardboard rather than flesh and blood. In fiction as in real life, we want to connect with people who are authentic. Real human beings are inconsistent, as often cruel as kind, with surprisingly sharp edges and bruised hearts. Never fear. The author, Frankenstein-like, can transform the less-than-human characters into the man or woman you want (and need).

I’ve been thinking about character folding as I edit my first novel manuscript The Dancing Girl and the Turtle in preparation of publication in spring 2017. I am lucky to have the guidance of Lynn Michell of Linen Press, who is both my publisher and editor. She has a keen ear for the false note and a generous hand with compliments. She also has an unfailing ability to find the spots where I can tease out the threads of my tale just a little more. It’s a collaborative process that’s been delightful in all sorts of surprising ways, like asking me hard questions.


I’ve chosen to tell my story in a kaleidoscopic way that can be very demanding on the reader. The two main characters – the dancer Anyi and the gambler Cho – speak in first person present (“I think”). An omniscient narrator speaks for all the other characters in a sometimes distant third person past (“she said”). My publisher asks me: why the intimacy for some characters and not for all?

My reasons are varied and possibly not valid but here they are:

Manager Lin
Dance hall manager. Image source: Old Shanghai calendar as drawn by He Youzhi

Workers like the rickshaw driver, the bouncer and the dance hall manager represented a much wider slice of Shanghai life than the dancers or gamblers (let alone the 30,000 odd Westerners) we tend to see in films and books about Shanghai set in the 1930’s. In The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, I want to show Shanghai through the eyes of the “ordinary” Chinese. A grim rather than glamorous place to live and die.

I lay no claim, however, to the telling of truth. That is an essence virtually impossible to capture. The best you can hope for is a glimpse, a quicksilver that sears when grasped. In this novel, I choose to look sideways  in the hope of creating an image that pierces the eye.


So I’ve kept all my characters, choosing not to fold them into composite shapes. I’ve maintained as well the distinction between the characters in the spotlight and those who hover in the shadows. What I have changed is the number of characters with speaking roles.

For example, Beauregard is a black man from the American South who ends up a bouncer in a Shanghai casino. He never explains how he ended up in Shanghai. Instead, we watch him interact with the world around him. We witness his generosity of spirit, even when offered an easier way out. Intuitively, we understand the journey he’s taken.

A color doesn’t need to be visible in order to be present. Not every character demands a speaking role. Reducing the number of POV characters feels like origami to me. Deepening the folds and adding new layers so that when I’m finished, my characters will take off and fly.

Kubo and his origami birds. Image source: theverge.com

Originally published on 30 November 2016. Edited on 8 June 2017.