You know what it’s like. You’re chugging along with a story, all’s going as planned, the wheels are turning and placidly moving you and your characters forward so you’re in the flow and the outside world has fallen away and this imaginary world you’ve invented is sparking every one of your senses and you’re not even aware of time and then all of a sudden
| screeching halt |
A character has stopped listening to you. She’s veered off and has yanked you from your creative cocoon with the thin, silver cord that tethers you together. At first, after you’ve regained some sort of cognizance about what’s happened, you let her go. You want to stay open. Magnanimous. But then it starts to become clear. She won’t – or can’t – do what you had in mind.
You might start to feel confused. Frustrated. Angry, even. But if you know anything about interpersonal relationships, you know the best way to scare off another person is to use anger or control to muscle them into doing what you want. And you don’t want to scare away your character. You don’t. Because if you do, she’ll sink deeper into your subconscious, cross her arms, and you’ll be caught in writing purgatory.
Sometimes writing isn’t just about putting words on the page or screen. Sometimes it’s about stopping and having a heart-to-heart with one of your characters. The way you would someone you deeply care about. Someone whose heart you want to know and understand.
We have to be in love with our characters the way we’re in love with our kids, with our best friend, with our partner or spouse. If we can’t love our characters this way, if we can’t know and understand their hearts, we’re not going to be able to tell their stories with the unflinching and honest integrity they deserve. Even if they’re exhibiting behavior we don’t understand to show us their dark and secret wounded selves – and maybe especially then – it’s our responsibility as writers of their stories to make them real, no matter how unreasonable or shameful their actions or motives may be and no matter their role in the story. We are their mouthpieces, the purveyors of their humanity.
This means we have to be able to love even our antagonists. We have to become the interpreters of their soul path in life, even if their behavior is despicable. We have to help our readers see the humanity in our characters because life – especially in fiction – does not happen at opposite ends of a light vs. dark spectrum.
When you take the time to discover the deeper reasons why your character is laughing instead of crying at her mother’s funeral, why she lies or hurts herself and those around her, why she can’t stand up for herself, when you climb inside her skin, sink into her psyche, and enter her heart, you become her, and when you become her, you’ll learn what she’s afraid of. Chances are, whatever you find there might just apply to you, too.
And this is the thing about writing fiction. It makes you vulnerable. And you have to be vulnerable if you want your characters to be vulnerable. Just as in real life with real people. And with that vulnerability comes compassion. And with compassion comes a deeper understanding of people and the human condition.
And with that, you’ll be a better writer.
And a better person, too.
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Do you have a character who needs clarity?
What’s her/his name? Who is she/he?