Origami for Authors | Karen Kao

The Amsterdam 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 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.

Bride at Nihon no Hanga. Photo credit: Karen Kao
Inside this house hides the private collection of Elise Wessels. For decades, she’s traveled to Japan, bringing woodblock prints back to Amsterdam. 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


Yoshitoshi signature and seal. 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.

In Moon above the Sea at Daimotsu Bay, the warrior-priest Musashibo Benkei stands at the helm of a ship in storm. He exorcises the demons and thus saves his master 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.

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 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 thought about character folding when I was editing my first novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle (Linen Press 2017). I was lucky to have the guidance of Lynn Michell, who was both my publisher and editor. She had a keen ear for the false note and a generous hand with compliments. She also had an unfailing ability to find the spots where I could tease out the threads of my tale just a little more. It was a collaborative process that was delightful in all sorts of surprising ways, like when she asked me hard questions.


Dance hall manager. Image credit: He Youzhi
For example, I 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 asked me: why the intimacy for some characters and not for all?

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

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 wanted to show Shanghai through the eyes of the “ordinary” Chinese. A grim rather than glamorous place to live and die.

I laid no claim, however, to the telling of truth. That is an essence virtually impossible to capture. The best I hoped for was a glimpse, a quicksilver that seared when grasped. In this novel, I chose to look sideways  in the hope of creating an image that pierced the eye.


So I kept all my characters, choosing not to fold them into composite shapes. I maintained as well the distinction between the characters in the spotlight and those who hovered in the shadows. What I did change was 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 arrived 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 colour 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.

Note: Origami for Authors was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.


Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Karen: As you describe (but likely worse), all my attempts at creating origami cranes give birth to crude paper airplanes, Napoleon hats, or grotesquely twisted wreckage that looks like it has been stepped on by The Hulk in a rainstorm. Here and I thought it was just me. ... Nevertheless your origami thought experiment for fictional characters is another matter. It flies gracefully crane-like in my writers' mind. I could do that, I think. I love out-of-the-box solutions. Having trouble putting words on paper? Fold the damn paper into mental origami! I also loved the Rebecca Makkai blog. She's a wonderful writer as well - right here in Chicago too.

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