A Meditation for Novelists: Your Characters Might Be You, But You Don’t Have to Be Your Characters

This one’s for my fellow lunatics-in-arms. You’re not the only one and you don’t have a faint heart…


“Hope can drown, lost in thunderous sound…”

Sometimes, I deeply envy biographers and researchers. Nonfiction can be more tedious to compile than fiction (my dignified way of giving props to those in the nonfiction world), but those who try to deal in dry facts have half a chance of leaving their work at the door when they stop at the end of the day. They might uncover ugly truths, but they don’t have to sympathize with their subject matter. They don’t need to know how someone felt in a certain moment or even make it look exciting on paper (although it really helps). Their primary goal – presumably – is to report events and facts, not understand why someone acted how they did. This is a quiet but massive distinction. Fiction writers don’t get off nearly so easily.

Novelists really are emotional cannon fodder. Outsiders – and yes, plenty of insiders, including yours truly – absolutely don’t understand the fascinating but weirdly neurotic skill known as taking on your characters. What’s more, this rather brutalizing activity is self-inflicted. Why would people do that to themselves when a handful of more benign offshoots (research, biography, poetry, essay, literary theory) are waiting to be delved?

Why, you ask? Because there are cathartic moments, too. We can rise to orbital heights or plummet into a deep, abandoned mine. We can be someone with common, unlikely, or near-impossible traits. We can be the worst monsters or the noblest heroes. We can be what we never thought we could be – and that sword has two edges.

I don’t know what you’re writing about any more than you know what I’m writing about, and that’s okay. It’s probably necessary. I don’t know how to tell you to compartmentalize your written characters off from the rest of your life. I’m not sure that there’s one foolproof method. It’s entirely unique and entirely experimental. Only the most heartless, lackluster book-churners can distance themselves more than a few feet from the page.

“Fear can claim what little faith remains…”

I don’t do anything quickly. I know how to be relentless, but relentlessness can be very quiet and very meticulous. When I started dealing with a large project idea, it was amazing. The earliest version of the material wasn’t remarkable by any means, but it was earth-shattering productivity by my standards. I kept up with it, only working when I felt like working.

It was profoundly therapeutic, but something was missing. At some point, after several unhappy life experiences, my writing unsurprisingly took a dark turn – much darker than I realized I was capable of imagining. It seemed to fit the story like a glove and spurred on many important passages and concepts, but I didn’t understand what I was looking at.

For a long, long time, I was terrified to continue work on my own projects because I didn’t understand how I could write some of what I’d written without it being some awful indicator of an inner scumbag lurking within. A few of my characters are abundantly good people, the sort that every single member of mankind needs but doesn’t always get. Some characters are so dark and extreme that, for me, they’re still unspeakable – literally.

“But I carry strength from souls now gone,

They won’t let me give in…”

In some ways, it’s silly to be shy about the people populating your invented world. Tangentially (my fancy word to acknowledge your hard work without crushing your hopes), many things already exist under the sun. Invention is marvelous, but half of our gifts involve crafting, merging, and “translating” what we see into interesting and (hopefully) believable figments. Good fiction spins such an interesting world that you don’t notice the illusion, even if the events within it aren’t grounded in reality.

This all sounds very glum and bleak, but I’m trying to use it as a pass, not a condemnation. Even in the midst of a terrible act, we can take a glimmer – sometimes just a sliver – of a lesson from it. It might not be an encouraging lesson, but we can at least hope that it’ll be a practical one. We can certainly also hope that it’ll be something we understand on the first attempt.

It might not sound like it, but I’ve come to realize that learning how to draw the line for personal guilt and shame is a vital writing skill. No one can start learning it too early and no one ever completely masters it.

The strange thing is that if you’re writing fiction about atrocities, you’re probably closer to the truth than if you try to describe a world exclusively populated by good guys. Heroes, sadly, are always less realistic than villains simply because heroes are much harder to spot in reality. We all know villains. Some are of epic proportions and others are simply miserable people, but everyone gets scratched up a bit in life. Some of us grow up surrounded by villainy, and there’s no shortage of depressing or violent books, movies, and TV shows. Admirable characters tend to get squashed one way or another.

“I will never surrender,

We’ll free the earth and sky

Crush my heart into embers

And I will reignite…”

I have a sneaking suspicion that some among the many scores of people who abandon writing projects don’t do it because of writer’s block or inexperience. What if they did it because they were scared of themselves? What if they do it because they couldn’t bear what they’d wrought?

I often had (and still have) a certain obnoxious, harsh, stark argument with myself when approaching darkness. It goes something like this:

If I write cruelty, does that make me cruel?

You have no idea how many times I scribbled, painted, smeared, whispered, and screamed that question. I’m no closer to an answer. I like to think that no, we aren’t what we write about.

But if I thought about it in the first place, something or someone planted that seed. I let someone plant that seed, and now it took root.

Yes and no. Technically, a human brain doesn’t really invent anything (with the possible exception of fringe sciences such as premonitions). There are millions of variables, statistics, and choices in the average human skull (many of them not mathematical!). Most of us don’t articulately ponder this because a rich enough catalog of possibilities keeps us busy. We’re only using what we can scoop up from a particular pool of likelihoods. The good and bad news is that new drops of water can join the pool at any time – and more often than not, it’s a nasty shock instead of a pleasant surprise.

Invention (or incorporation, if you’re the gloomy sort) is nothing more or less than invention, and yet a hundred thousand factors, chances, and people are all too eager to warp this idea. We invent what we already know – sure. We build on the familiar until it has an intriguing twist. But Stephen King is reputed to be a soft-spoken kitten, not a schizophrenic maniac. Tom Clancy didn’t own a fleet of nuclear submarines. Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth aren’t part of a shadow government (as far as we know).

So take a deep breath and think about this again.

It’s easy to get stuck on a certain character, even if your writing productivity is going swimmingly. It’s easy to obsess on background details or traits. It’s also hard to get out of that place when you’re in so deep.

Let’s be honest: writing about darkness is a blistering, furious whirlwind. There isn’t a shortcut. Darkness is claustrophobic. It gets embedded under your fingernails. It might even start to have its own smell. Eventually, you can only think like a certain character because the only way that a character can exist at all is for you to make that entity seem real. You just can’t do that without stepping into their shoes. It’s a vicious cycle.

Some people – a little cynically, but not outlandishly – claim that characters, by nature of being created by one person’s ideas (usually), are often just distorted versions of the author. For the sake of everyone on the planet since the first days of recorded stories, I really hope that’s not true. But there are definitely times when it’s impossible to distance yourself from your work. It’s easy for traits to leak in – or out.

It might be something small and easily dismissed or it might be something crucial to who you are. It might be a heartbreaking sacrifice, a secret selfishness, or a valuable but unacknowledged detail which could tip the scales on an old humiliation – for better or worse. It might be an intolerable shame – yours or someone else’s. It might be an enduring truth or a sign of keen steadfastness. It might make you laugh, cringe, weep, or crumble. It could be a harmless but irrepressible tic that you’re embarrassed to admit to. If you’re lucky, it’s some kind of beautiful metaphor.

“Just hold the line until the end

‘Cause we will give them hell…”

But a vicious cycle can also be a glorious one. It depends on how you look at it. It can change you from what you were to what you are, or maybe even something better a few miles down the road. It can show you that someone can bend fate or chase away demons, however unlikely it seems at first. It can teach you how to move past your past. It might even save your life.

I don’t think it’s about whether or not you include personal baggage in a story. I daresay that if you could ask every living novelist such a question, most would say that yes, there are bits and pieces of themselves in their stories. I think it’s about owning up to it and deciding whether or not you’re okay with admitting that you included it. You can just as likely learn to think and act like one of your heroes as you can act like a villain – because if you dreamed someone up, you must be able to think that way yourself, right?

And if there’s hope for your hero, there’s hope for you – right?