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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Writers and their characters

“A writer begins by breathing life into his characters. But if you are very lucky, they breathe life into you.” from Walking on Alligators: A Book of Meditations for Writers, by Susan Shaughnessy.

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After finishing my 10th novel (The Koala of Death)and touring on my 9th (Desert Lost), I decided to take a break, to do nothing but read escapist literature and watch trashy TV for two weeks. My resolution lasted for the entirety of Friday morning. By Friday afternoon, I’d started work on my 11th novel.

This inability to “not write” sometimes scares me, but truth be told, when I’m not writing, I miss my fictional friends. I hope they miss me, too, because no matter where I go, I’m always looking around for stories to give them, unique characters to set them against. When I’m writing a Lena Jones mystery, I view the world through her eyes. “What would Lena think about this?” I think. Following automatically, comes another question: “What would Lena do?” I’ve even caught myself in the middle of a conversation with someone, saying, “Well, as Lena said the other day...” Then I catch myself. There is no Lena. She’s a fictional character who exists in six -- going on seven -- mystery novels.

But then I catch myself again. Yes, Virginia, there is a Lena. That wounded but brave woman who takes up one-third of my waking life has become as real to me as my friends and family, and in many ways, has even become my moral guidepost. If Lena sees something that offends her, it offends me, too. If she sees something that makes her laugh, I laugh. Situations that make Lena sad make me sad. I may have created Lena Jones, but at the same time, she is also creating me. As I travel with her through the badlands of Arizona battling killers, child abusers, cutters and polygamists, Lena’s outrage sensitizes me to the suffering of others. “You see?” she appears to be asking me. “You see what they’ve done?”

Lena’s not an easy gal to be around. No matter. None of us would be “easy” if we’d been found at the age of four, lying by a Phoenix street after being shot in the head, and afterwards enduring a childhood filled with foster homes and other horrors. But we writers can learn from our most troubled of friends, can't we?

Still, it’s always a relief when I get to spend time with my zoo series character, Theodora “Teddy” Iona Esmeralda Bentley, the zoo keeper who always seems to be stumbling over dead humans. Teddy is a much less complicated person than Lena, and my days spent with this houseboat-living zoo keeper are humorous and relaxing (until another dead body shows up). When I’m volunteering at the Phoenix Zoo, I’ll see a squirrel monkey doing something outrageous, and I think,“Oh, man, I’ve got to tell Teddy about this!”

Writers are crazy. We build castles in the air, then move into them. We create characters, and have conversations with them. But isn’t that the fun of being a writer -- to walk alone into a small room and within minutes, be surrounded by a crowd of fascinating people, some of whom you dearly love?

But that’s also the scary part of being a writer: sometimes our friends take their time showing up, and the hollow sound of an empty room can be terrifying. Now that I’ve started on Desert Wind, the 7th Lena Jones mystery, I wonder -- will Lena talk to me this morning? Or will she run away when I call her name? Writing is hard. Very hard. Some days we writers sit at the computer and nothing happens. But still we sit, with our fingers hovering over the keyboard, waiting for our “imaginary” friend to appear out of nowhere and start telling us a story.

That friendship and those stories are what we writers live for.

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Gail Godwin, on writing when depression strikes: “It goes just as well, but it takes twice as long. I made a deal with myself. I said, “I’ll just come up here every day.” The artist Phillip Guston told me this once when he was having a bad patch: “I go to my studio every day, because one day I may go and the angel will be there. What if I don’t go and the angel came?”

6 comments:

Kathleen Ernst said...

Great post. I know exactly how you feel!

Alice Trego said...

I enjoyed reading about your relationships with your characters. How true it is with writers.

L.J. Sellers said...

Great post, Betty. I understand the not being able to "not write." I'm like that too. I have to be telling a story. I've also grown very fond of my characters. Even when I think about writing a whole new series or even a standalone, I plot ways to sneak some of my current characters into the story. They become part of your life!

Margaret said...

Very interesting post. I guess that's what makes the difference between writers and the rest of us--no characters in our heads. Will soon be starting "Desert Lost," and am anxious to read the next "zoo book," too.

Lillian Stewart Carl said...

I fully understand about building castles in the air and then moving into them. And then rearranging the furniture and updating the plumbing, and inviting the neighbors in for pot-luck.

All this is hard to explain to a non-writer!

Nancy said...

>>to walk alone into a small room and within minutes, be surrounded by a crowd of fascinating people, some of whom you dearly love<<

I don't think I've ever read such a wonderful explanation. I'll never forget the first time I finally asked a fellow writer if her characters talked to her, if they stood by tapping their foot when she tried to make the story do what she wanted, if she found herself thinking of them as real people. Her "of course" was sooo reassuring.