I am in the process of revising two novels. I’m working through what I hope will be the final set of revisions for Aeden’s Wake with my agent, and Old Habits (wow, I can’t wait to rename that one) is currently mellowing in a drawer, having been workshopped with my mentor, Nino Ricci, on Friday.
Nino said some pretty great things – you’d hope so, right? – but the one thing that is really giving me some mental-crunch-material was his suggestion to see and write the events of the novel through the characters’ eyes.
In one character’s case, he is continually trying to make up for a tragic decision he made in the middle of the desert – but he also lives in the same city as his father, who abandoned the family. I’d not forgotten about the father, but I did spend so much time on having Mohammed making up for what happened to his mother and sister that I ignored that he would likely think about “the Dad situation” far more than he does currently in the book. How many of his experiences would be coloured by that reality?
I think that this perspective has much to do with the authenticity of our characters, something literary writers strive for perhaps more than anything else. How do we know what our characters would see, hear, taste, want, need?
I have a few friends who have been having a rough time as of late – some chronically, others temporarily. And, as people are wont to do, everyone responds to those dear folks with predictable expressions of good cheer. Cheer up! Tomorrow will be a better day! Hope you feel more like yourself!
Sounds normal, and we’ve all experienced it – no one likes misery.
But when I turn things around and try to see the sickness or other maladies from the perspective of those who experience them, even though we mean well, what I think people want or need to hear more is genuine expressions in response to what they are feeling. When we feel bad, we smile away the words of others that don’t really meet us where we are. Thanks, we’ll say, when we really want them to tell us how much they love us, or support us, or validate who we are. Or we want them to work through an issue with us. Sometimes, we even want them to spit at us and tell us how much we deserve what we get.
What we want or need might not be pretty, but at least it’s honest.
Memorable characters are no different. Think about it – when was the last time you read a great book that had a walk-by “I hope you feel better!” from a secondary character that promptly went back to his own business? Doesn’t happen. Great writing gets straight to the meat: the best friend will speak honest truths, the priest will demand absolution, the villain will play on the malady with sadism.
Pick a character. Mersault is confronted by continual honesty, which contrasts with the absurdity of his worldview. Holden Caulfield gets no idle sympathy from anyone. Scout doesn’t receive Atticus’ dismissive platitudes. Jane Eyre finds no pats on the back as she surveys the charred debris. Jesus suffers, and the soldiers gamble for his clothing. Hamlet. Oedipus. And so on...
As a writing exercise, in an effort to distill true desires and hopes, starting today I’m going to try to hear what others are really saying, and try to respond in kind when people do the same to me. (At least to the people I know, and just for a little while – in real life, sometimes superficiality is necessary, and there’s no way I could do so for everyone I meet!) And then I’ll try to inject that meaning into the words and desires of my characters.
A Conversation with My Character
Me: “So how are you doing?”
Character: “I feel crappy.”
Me: “Really? That sucks.”
Char.: “Yes, it does. And my dog died.”
Me: “Death hurts.”
Char.: “It does, doesn’t it?”
Char.: “But you know what really hurts…?”
Me: “No. Tell me.”