I’m moving out of state in a few months. Part of every weekend is now spent trapped in the inevitable, unenviable process of going through closets and boxes and then getting rid of stuff. That takes a while, especially when I fall into a well of memories and spend far too much time at the bottom rather than clawing my way back out.
Back in undergrad, at some cost to my sanity and GPA, I earned a writing minor alongside my physics major. Today I found a piece I wrote for one of those classes. It was a personal, non-fictional essay. Neither essays nor non-fiction (when unrelated to my scientific research) are my thing, yet I was shocked by the naked self I’d presented for the “world” to see. While I don’t fully agree with the symbolic language preferences of the professor of that course, the flowery phrases and comparisons had a striking way of depicting my conflicted feelings regarding a family member thanks to good old family tensions. Reading it again now became all the more poignant because that person passed away about three months ago.
More than the pictures I stumbled across, more than the leftover scraps of notes passed in class or the cards given to me for one holiday or another, this little essay revealed some aspects of what I was like back then, what I thought about, what I focused on.
Maybe someday I’ll post a more polished version of this piece on here and let more than my old professor and classmates read it. But, for now, it’ll serve as a stark reminder to me to keep writing. I’d like to be able to look back on this week, this month a few years from now and once again meet a version of my past self.
A character questionnaire can ask (a lot of) deep, intimate questions. They’re useful for getting to know a character, but they may not help you figure out when that character might reveal such information. Or to whom.
- Who is she willing to confide in? Who would she tell about her past relationships?
- What kind of place is he in when he’s willing to share more personal details? Is it a coffee shop, a bar, a casual restaurant, or an upscale dining establishment?
- Is she in a large group when she talks about herself, or does she prefer a small circle of people? Are they already close friends?
In my experience, another difficulty with these lists is that some questions can’t be answered until the story has further developed. Nevertheless, keeping questions in mind may not only inform future character decisions but can also lead a writer to consider other scenes, other conversations, other events that may not have happened otherwise.
Over the years I’ve realized that writing a novel is, in many ways, much like raising a child. A child you can safely ignore for years at a time, but a child nonetheless.
I nurture an idea, a setting, a world. I name characters (an often agonizing process that will be the subject of a future post!) and then watch them grow, develop, interact with others, and frequently make decisions I hadn’t expected. Just last night I finally put words on the screen to represent a scene that had been in my head for weeks, yet one of the major characters involved had a completely different reaction than the one I’d envisioned. Reading it again today, I realized that reaction was the right one, the one most in character. I created that character; why isn’t she behaving like I thought she would? Because I’m getting to know her better with each and every sentence I write. Don’t kids surprise their parents and other adults in their lives in a similar way?
I’m physically and mentally exhausted after completing the first draft of a novel. I still recall with perfect clarity that feeling of leaning back in my chair after hitting the “save” button. I stared at the ceiling as adrenaline left my body in a rush, leaving me limp yet giddy. I grabbed my phone and texted a few friends, likely spelling things wrong or accepting the wrong auto-corrected word in all my excitement (I hate making typos). It’s like giving birth, albeit to a far lesser degree.
I’m proud of my writing, and I want others to share in that pride. I’m not sure what the equivalent of a picture of a daughter at soccer practice or a son performing at a recital would be for a novel, but I still have the desire to post the little things documenting a book’s progress. Perhaps tweets like “Today I killed off a character!” or “I finally figured out why [character’s name] hates snakes!” would come close.
I must end with the caveat that I’m not a mother. I do know many mothers (and fathers) and have the utmost respect for the decisions they make and the efforts they exert on behalf of their child or children. I understand that writing is far different from actually shepherding another human being from infanthood to adulthood. However, I still pour myself into my writing and discover more about myself and those around me in the process. After all, the best kind of story, whether one I create or one from the mind of another, is one that inspires me to become a better person, and children often do the same for those around them.
Every character in a story is a person, someone who had a childhood, an upbringing, a family or lack thereof. He or she faced tough times or easy ones or a combination of both. Each one lived in a single place for a long time, moved around frequently, or spent time as a vagabond. Some of them play instruments. Others can sing. (Still others send their audience running to the hills when they try either.)
I “meet” so many people by writing. I try to see their world through their eyes, their beliefs, their experiences. Does she hate her mother for forcing her to become a seamstress, or does she hate herself for her own lack of skill? Does he blame his father for leaving, or does he think his family is better off without such a man in their lives? Does she dote on her daughter because she always wanted to be a mother or because her life was transformed when the child was born?
In a story with a massive cast or numerous people who only appear for less than a page, it’s difficult to give each one such a background. Then again, if it’s just a note in the back of your mind or on a scrap sheet of paper, is it so hard to write a sentence or two when you’ve already gone to the trouble of giving him or her a name?