Article of the Month
copyright 2001 by Alicia Rasley
Patient: Doctor, I think I'm going crazy. Sometimes I find that I'm talking to myself inside my
Doctor: Now, now, I wouldn't start worrying about it until someone starts talking back.
Admit it. You've got a nagging doubt about all those voices in your head. They not only talk back to you, they argue with each other. Sometimes you get headaches because they stomp around and slam doors. When you read Three Faces of Eve, you realized if someone wrote about your multiple personality syndrome, it would be Three Hundred Faces.
Oh, yeah, I know. It's different for you. You're not crazy. Crazy people can't tell the
difference between reality and fantasy, and you can. Right. Consider that time your spouse came in and found you dissolved in tears at your keyboard, and you looked up and said, "I couldn't help it. I had to kill Joey off." Who was more real to you at that moment, your living spouse or the dead Joey?
It's always been like this for you, hasn't it? While your little friends were dressing their Barbies up, you'd already endowed Ken with a dark secret, a dangerous smile, and a lethal set of double entrendres. Other kids quit "making pretend" when they started making out. Not you. (You even found yourself murmuring "Ruark!" after your first kiss, didn't you?) And while your classmates were struggling to understand Othello, you were plotting the sequel, The Redemption of Iago.
Then adulthood arrived, and so did shame. Like Adam and Eve, you learned to keep a fig leaf over your private parts– it's just your private parts were inside your head. You didn't tell your soap-loving best friend about how you managed to get Luke and Laura back together. And though you confessed every last little real-life crush to your significant other, you knew better than to reveal the hunks leaning insolently against the doorways to your imagination. You knew even the people who loved you the most just wouldn't understand. In fact, they'd think you were... crazy.
And then the miracle happened. You met a fiction writer, or took a writing class, or
joined a writing group, and as you listened, what you heard spread wonder through you. Other people had voices too. Other people– regular people, by the looks of them, with jobs and families just like you– muttered both sides of an imaginary conversation as they drove home through rush-hour traffic. Other people bought three baby-name books years before they had babies; they too had mental sextuplets to christen.
Do you remember that moment when you realized you weren't alone? And you weren't crazy? It was liberating and joyous and it transformed your life. All you had to do about those people in your head was ... write them down. You just had to take all those secret jottings and connect them into a plot. You could use all your elaborate theorizing on their childhoods and call it backstory. You could take all those crazy floorplans of their castles and call it setting. Then you could give the characters the ending they deserved, and the entire universe, at least the one behind your eyes, would be restored to order.
Since then, you've never looked back, have you? In the community of writers, it's
perfectly okay to spend more time decorating your hero's home than you ever spent on your own. Your writing friends know better than to sneak out and dial 911 when you're discussing your villain's favorite poisons. They listen sympathetically to your complaints that even after you've killed her mother and blinded her father, your heroine still insists on being as perky as Sandra Bullock.
All this support, however, has made you forget how deeply weird it is to live inside your characters while they live inside you.
But here I am to remind you of this paradox: Making fictional humans has the
simultaneous effect of making authors both more and less human themselves.
Non-writers, I think, assume that we paint from life, that we get our ability to characterize from close observation of our fellow "real people." (Only writers, by the way, will understand why I put "real people" in quotes there. It's not like our characters aren't real people too, right?) It's true, we do our share of people-watching, although I suspect for many of us it's more a matter of blocking the motion than deciphering the emotion– "So that's how a man yanks open the door and gets out of the car in one fluid movement!" We are properly appreciative of all the subtle variations of human psychology, and if we have a pen handy, we jot our observations down.
But just as often it's the reverse: We understand the people outside our head because we know the ones inside. Like Walt Whitman, we contain multitudes, and all we have to do sometimes is ask, and they'll tell us who and what they are– and why. It's all too easy to extrapolate from their revelations to the motives and values of everyone around us. (When I was in graduate school in the English program, I took as an elective a Criminal Behavior psychology course. Impressed with my paper on what combination of background factors produce what variety of crime, the professor asked if I were a social worker who worked with many offenders. "No, " I replied, "I'm a writer, and I have a lot of villains.")
We need characters to fill every role, so we might take on the tolerant attitude of "it takes all kinds of people to build a world." Unfortunately, the tolerance we have for some of our characters can be disorienting when we try to apply it to their counterparts in the real world. I can just imagine Thomas Harris's justification for bestowing connubial bliss upon Hannibal the Cannibal– "Serial murderers need a happy ending too!" Let's just say, we might not be the best jurors for Jeffrey Dahmer's trial.
The problem is, once we construct the backstory for our characters, we realize everyone in the world has backstory too– traumas and issues and dark pasts that affect their present behavior. So we search in their actions for some rich and complex motivation, which can make us more intuitive about other people's feelings than almost any shrink. We know that the boy standing defiant on the playground is trying to conceal his loneliness and longing for a friend. We know the girl looking up from her book is trying to get up her courage to approach him. That's the wonderful empathy of authors.
The problem is, while we're melting with sympathy for them, we're also plotting how, if
we were in charge of this story, we'd have the school bully (hmmm... probably acting out because his father beats him, or maybe his mother's abandoned him?) taunt the boy and then the girl would rush to his defense–
In other words, we would turn those real people into characters.
It happens all the time. We'll be watching the news, sincerely weeping sympathetic tears as some parent whose child has gone missing begs for her safe return... while idly thinking that there's something a bit off about the gestures and expression there, and wouldn't it be cool if it turned out that the parent actually murdered the child and buried her – That's sick. (And it doesn't make us feel much better when it turns out, three days later, our fiction is actually fact.)
Or our best friend will be lamenting her mother's increasing frailty, and we'll mention our last heroine's conflict about putting her mother in a nursing home. And we're surprised and ashamed when the friend snaps, "My mother's broken hip, alas, is real, not some subplot that's going to be wrapped up neatly by Chapter 14!"
But we do agree, don't we, that there is no reason for a husband to object to an entirely rational discourse on the allure of a flinty-eyed tattooed Adonis ex-cop of a hero? (And that is nothing at all like our justifiable irritation when he says, as he closes the cover of our latest release, "You know, I'd like to take your heroine straight to bed." He's.... he's objectifying her!)
Let's face it. Sometimes our amazing ability to bring characters to life gets a little scary. It isn't just that our life becomes fodder for our fiction; sometimes, as we try out our characters' poses and test their value system, our life starts to imitate our fiction. It might start with the helpful query "What would my resourceful heroine do?" whenever we're confronted with a difficult decision. But soon, we're taking self-defense classes because she's getting stalked. Think of poor Stephen King. He recalls the spookily cheerful driver of the van that nearly killed him as "a character out of one of my own novels." (And the driver died mysteriously, alone in his trailer, a few months later... insert Twilight Zone music, please.)
There is magic in this ability of ours to imagine people so completely, but it's a dark
magic too. A wonderful empathy guides us to embody universal human issues in unique characters, who sometimes inspire our readers to realizations about their own lives. But the obverse of writer's empathy is a sort of sociopathy that leads us to take a notebook to an aunt's funeral so we can jot down those telling details– the glint of the sun on the teak coffin, our uncle's fist closing hard around the stem of a lily and breaking it.
Only a sociopath, after all, could create people just to torture them with "conflict" and
"motivation" and "poetic justice". Only a sociopath could say, "I couldn't help it. I had to kill Joey off." A sociopath... or a writer.
"There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer," Graham Greene remarked. I think that is the paradox that ultimately makes us writers– the mix of warm beating love and icy determination. But remember, the splinter pierces our heart first of all, and as long as we can feel that, experience the pain our characters experience, we will retain the humanity needed to imagine those inner voices into life, and make them become real for the real people who are our readers.
Alicia Rasley is a 14-year member of Romance Writers of America, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.
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Go to previous articles:
Quick Character Motivation Exercise
Dazzling Dialogue Tips
The Submission Journey
Suspense Is More Than Surprise
Scenes on Fire!
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends: The Purposes
On the Brink: Turbocharge Your Opening
Tightening the Sagging Middle
Sharks in the Water: Old Scams in the New Millennium
The Publishing Journey
Lest Ye Be Judged: Contest Judging for Writers
Setting and Character Interactions
Developing the Dark Moment
The Promise of the Hot Premise
Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes
Subtle and Sensual
Plotting Without Fears
Structuring the Story
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