I belong to a local group of writers, not novelists, just writers. A few write short stories, a few write books, a few write nonfiction pieces, and the rest of the group writes poetry. It's an odd mix of some super wonderful people who officially meet twice a month. Once a week, we get together and spend about two hours writing, or at least we're supposed to be writing, but often we wind up chatting.
Well, the other night one of the members came with new notes. He's writing this mother's story, a fascinating tale of a woman who came from nothing and has suffered incredible hardships. She's well in her nineties with failing vision but living quite comfortably. He made the comment that he now feels like he's living his mother's life by taking down her stories as she recounts her life and turning those stories into a memoir.
He's bounced between writing in first person and writing in third, trying to find the groove of his voice and present a strong point of view in which to tell the story. Two of us at this non-official writing session are published authors, and while trying to help him, the other author brought up the diary that I'm writing. That sent him into the tangent of what am I writing. So I tried to explain how my contemporary western romance, A Snowy Christmas in Wyoming, mentioned a diary. And I've been asked for the diary... But since it's supposed to be a diary, I have to write it in first person and that's not my natural voice. Then I got into how writing the diary sparked the invitation to be part of Sweetwater Spring Christmas with Debra Holland and that story evolved into my historical western, A Rancher's Woman, by using the grandson of the woman in the diary.
I gave him a quick overview of this woman's life in the diary. He stops me and asks where I found the diary. Um, in my head. He looks at me askance and wants to now how I pull this stuff out of thin air. Do I just make up these characters? Yeah.
Maybe it was the innocence of his questions or the fact that I spend so much time around other writers that I forget just how strange we must seem to the rest of the world who doesn't have a clue how characters form or how we conjure up a whole world for them to live in. It's impossible to explain to someone who has never had an imaginary playmate, just as it is impossible for us to imagine life without these characters. For many of us, we do more than create characters, we are the architects behind the houses, cities, and new worlds.
We talk about muses, but maybe what we have is an extra chemical in our brains or some neuro pathway that others don't. But writers, like artists, are different. I love ballet, but I have the coordination of a drunk fly. I can't imagine having unwritten music in my head. Thank goodness I'm not cluttered with music that needs to be transcribed. That doesn't mean I don't love music, it's just that I don't create music. I create people, and places for them to live.
Even though my friend is writing, his approach is totally different. That won't make his mother's story less worthy of reading. But it might be why he's struggled to write it. But when my friend said he's now mentally living his mother's life, a little smile came to my face. I think he's discovered what it's like to be in a character's head. He'll find his mojo, stop struggling, and the story will begin to flow as it should.
Because good writing is good writing. The story needs the words to bring it to life, and we as writers must choose those words. It's the sequence of those words that make the difference. That is the craft. But the story comes in many different ways, and for the vast majority of us who write fiction stories, they are populated with characters who exist only in our minds - characters who live there until they are ready for the story. We know how they drink their coffee for we have watched them fix a cup of coffee as we fix ours.
I won't say I've never filled out a character sheet. I tried that one time. I almost destroyed a hero and heroine trying to do it. Maybe they don't want or need sheets.
Do we? Could we put ourselves in neat little blocks of data? I might have a preferred way to drink my coffee but I can drink it straight, sweetened only, or white only. I suspect I'm not alone. So why must my character choose a favorite color? Maybe my character's favorite color is lavender, that doesn't mean he's going to buy his next suit in lavender or want his girlfriend wearing it. But maybe something in his past that he's long forgotten was lavender and that particular color gives him warm fuzzy feelings. The painting that hangs in his living room has that color in the sky or the tie with the tiny stripe of lavender mixed with other blues is his favorite. And maybe he doesn't really know it's his favorite color.
Does it matter if I see my hero with a nose that might have been broken when he was five years old? Probably not. What matters is how the reader perceives him and his personality will override anything physical. And when he has ripened and I have my story, I pull upon that character and let him shine. He might have been waiting patiently for years to come alive in a story and maybe he's as fresh as a spring bud sticking its nose out of the snow.
But characters live with me - many have for years and years. Some have become like close friends and will never be placed onto a page, because once I do that, I must give them up. I don't mind being alone. Maybe I never am truly alone. Is that why other people who don't have characters in their heads walk into a house and turn on the TV to keep them company?
As a child, I would tell my mom wonderful stories of my imaginary playmates and what we did. I was told I was being silly and to stop the nonsense. I learned to be silent. If I said I went swimming with my real friends in the duck pond, I was in trouble. I learned to be silent about real life. That silence carried into young adulthood where I kept my dates secret. It wasn't until I married that I could actually tell my husband that I had all these people and places in my mind. He said he never did, but thought it was interesting that I did. He later supported me when I started writing fiction for our children, and when I started writing romance, he said I had found my niche.
I envy those who can ski off a slope, perform an entrechat, skate their way to an Olympic gold medal, or a dozen other things. But in my mind, I've done them. In real life, I've surfed, sailed a catamaran, ridden horses, skied hills, skated on ponds, seen the Taj Mahal, the Lourve, and the Vatican, and done more than probably most. But that wild imagination allows me to write so that others can read, and for a few hours, they can be someone else. I grew up thinking those characters in my head were a curse. Now I know they are a gift.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? DO YOU LIVE WITH CHARACTERS?