I tweeted something last week and today, it’s rolling around in my head like a marble.
The tweet said “Staring at my screen, I can’t help but wonder what the people who inspire my characters would think of the way I write them.” I tweeted it out and then let it go and kept writing. But today, I’m sitting in my little corner of the universe, on the floor in my favorite building on campus, with one incredibly brilliant woman sitting in her office to my right, and one incredibly brilliant woman sitting in her office to my left (which is super intimidating in and of itself) and I’m looking at my screen, at the characters that they have both helped me create, and some part of me (the masochistic part, I think) really wants to hand them my computer and ask them what they think of the way they sound in my words.
I love building characters. It’s the hardest part of writing (for me) because I have to get them right. Every character I build has to sound real, feel real, be real. I put so many little details about the person who inspired the character into the piece that the reader can feel like they know the character. Like they’ve met them, spoken to them, had drinks with them. I want my readers to feel like they could see my characters walking down the street, living their lives. I want them to be that real. I accept nothing less.
I take someone I know, a sweet brunette with a bad attitude, a bad reputation, and a soft spot that no one seems to know about, and I make her someone different. I take the girl who works a retail job dealing with people who want something for nothing and then goes home to her empty house to have a drink, play video games, and fall asleep on her couch. And I make her someone else. I take the beautiful mind and every good thing and every bad thing about her and I rearrange them, leaving just enough of her that you can see the person through the character. I give her a flaw. I give her a reason. I give her a heartbeat. And I put it on the page in such a way that makes the reader feel like they can reach out and touch her soul.
I take the professor with the beautiful mind and smart mouth and I make her exceptional. I make the reader value her mind over her looks in the way her colleagues obviously can’t. I teach the readers how she takes her tea, how she spends her free time, and where she goes when she falls asleep at night. I make her so real, so full of heart and vitality that the reader can’t help but like her, love her, remember her. They know her favorite color, her favorite book, her favorite song. They know that she’s capable of crying, or of standing tall when others would fall.
I take someone I know and I break them down. I break them down and I take the pieces and put the puzzle back together. I take the girl who might have earned a two year degree from the community college everyone in her town goes to, the girl who lives in a little house down yonder with her sister and drives her little grey car that’s always a mess, and I make her someone else.
Perhaps I write her and I don’t tell the reader where she studied, because brilliance is brilliance and it won’t change a thing. I stay true to that girl, with the big green eyes and dark hair, and I show my readers who she is when she doesn’t have to be anyone else. I show them how much she likes puzzles, all sorts of puzzles. I show them how she doesn’t sleep because her mind never stops working. I show them how much she hates mornings and only lives with her sister because her sister is an artist and in their town, artists can’t support themselves. I show them that she goes to work, puts in the time and the effort, to pay the bills so that her little sister can do what she loves. I show them what makes her laugh and how she looks when she smiles and I make her know her so well that when you strip away the job and the car and the details, they know the same girl I know. I make her so real that the character and the person cease to be truly different from one another.
I build my characters so well that my readers fall in love with them, the way I did. BEcause if I don’t, if I skip a detail or I fail to know them well enough, I could make them do something that they wouldn’t do, and my readers would see it and they would lose faith in me. If I lose the faith of the people reading the things I write, I have failed as a writer. I have shown my readers that they cannot trust me. And for that, there is no forgiveness.
So I build my characters and I put a piece of my soul into them and I write in the little story about how they do one-woman musicals when they drive long distances. I take as much time as I need and I make them as real, as whole, as human as I can. And then, when I’m through, I sit back and I look at my screen, and up at the person sitting in front of me, and I wonder.
What would you think of the way I write you? Would you be proud of me? Would you think I’d done enough? Or would you hate it? Would you feel ashamed of the way I see you?
I could ask, it would be easy, but do I dare?