“The most important character in every novel is the author’s personal story. The anguish in the narrative, as well as the tender moments, they all derive from it and make it necessary for the entire novel’s existence.”
I write in first person. Sometimes. And every single time I write in first person I wonder how much of it is me, my own thoughts and fears, my own variances and expressions, my own essence. If we really do write what we know, then maybe all of my characters have a little of me in them, which is kind of scary but kind of comforting at the same time. My imagination is vast and varied, and my experience a bit less so, but my words take on a mind of their own. I’m sure other writers can agree with me on this, if not quite on process, because we all go about it in a way that makes sense to us, the process. But with that imagination and the potential of every single character I write, all of that influences the narrative a lot more than my own life.
Then you read my first novel, and you tell me that so much of it sounds like it’s my life. Because so much of it is directly from my own life. What the conundrum, huh? And yet, even though so much of it derives from my personal anguish and my own internal conflicts, it’s still a work of fiction. Even though it’s in first person. Even though it’s largely from my life. When I sat down to write Detours that first day, I had no idea where it was going to go, what it had to say, and where it was going to take me. And when the main character spoke to me, he used my voice. I felt like we were as close as twins, that we shared so much history, but that in the end we led our own lives for better or for worse.
So, when I wrote that book I knew the questions would come, and I knew I didn’t really have solid answers to it. Yet, when my friends and family took the time to read it, to really read it, they told me what I hoped was true about it. They told me they could see me in it, but that the character was not me. And I think it’s because I cannot create myself, no matter how hard I try, because I will never know myself completely, not like others know me. But I do know my characters intimately, inside and out, because I am their creator and sustainer. It’s funny, that as writers we are like gods in our own little universes. Bang! There’s a world. Now let’s see how we can wreck it.
And as much as I think there should be happy endings in stories, I don’t write them. Maybe I’m too uncomfortably close to each of my stories because I can’t bring myself to write a “happily ever after” narrative, to bring my characters to a point where they’re happy for existing and good things are bound to happen to them from that point on. I think the closest I’ve ever come was one small story I wrote where the characters are about to get married at the end, but I couldn’t bring myself to make it happy even with that, leaving the door open for the even not to happen at all, leaving it up in the air at the ultimate point. Besides, in my mind, unlike in Shakespeare’s, weddings are not the ultimate happy endings anyway. Perhaps society has jaded me on that point.
When I’m writing a story, particularly a novel because of its length, I get heavily involved in the universe of that story. Ask my wife. I’m constantly talking to her about the characters like they’re old and new friends, like I want to shake them and make them see the truth. And it’s so odd to be inside of their minds, to know their motivations and concerns, even when I know the reading audience isn’t going to understand all of that until the end, when there is the big reveal, or when there are smaller reveals leading up to it. You see, I like surprises, because life, real life, is full of them. When we feel like we know everything, there is a small tweak that opens up so much more that we have to absorb into the fabric of our understanding. Then that changes and shifts too, and we’re left holding on to what we thought we knew.
So, is the story about me? Yes. And no. It’s about the me I wish I sometimes was, and about the me I know I’ll never be, and about the me I am underneath the surface, and about the me no one sees. I write so much and so often that it becomes a sort of game to me to see after the fact how much of my own thoughts can be attributed to characters, or how far afield I can go from my own ideals and still have it believable in my characters. I like looking back over things I’ve written ages ago and seeing those comparisons and contrasts in my writing and in my characters. It’s even refreshing to meet a new character and interact with them either on the page or just in my mind.
But the one constant in it all is the depth of knowledge I have on each character I write. Authors talk about backstories and character motivations, and all of those nuances come directly from the writer in conversation with the character herself. It’s like an extended interview, but it all takes place in private so everyone tells the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that truth might be. The character becomes closer than my own skin, and I feel it when she’s hurt, when she hurts others, when she sees no way out other than the way she has to take, no matter how painful it is. I cry when she cries, and laugh when she laughs, knowing that things probably won’t work out for her, but rooting for her nonetheless. Because even though I don’t write happy endings it doesn’t stop me from wishing they could be true, from wanting the best for her.
Because she deserves it. They all do, even if I don’t write them that way.