Playing Make Believe– A Lesson on Character Building

Something happened to me when I grew up (although, judging by the fact I’m eating mozerrella sticks and Fritos for lunch, that term is used loosely). It’s something I think happens to most of us once we hit puberty, and start going to Sadie Hawkins dances (by the way, 1980 called and wants their pop culture reference back) and fantasizing about kissing boys (or girls). We lose our imaginations.

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This is me, Halloween 2010, playing doctor (not like that! get your heads out of the gutter!). I had to come up with a costume to take my ex-wife’s niece and nephew trick-or-treating. When you’re little, you go dressed as Superman, or Miley Cyrus or whatever (God forbid my children ever decide to go as a tween…). So, as an adult, I opted to go as what I wanted to be when I “grew up” (which, as I mentioned, is probably still in progress).

Writing a book is probably one of your few chances in your adult life to be whoever you want to be. As a younger writer, I used to literally write myself into every single thing I wrote. And without any trying to hide it, either. Because I’ve always been into first person narrative, it was just the most logical thing to make the “me” character the one who did the narrating. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Searching for Forever is the first thing I’ve ever written that ISN’T TRUE. Not even a little bit true (sorry to disappoint, any of you older-women-fetishizers out there who wanted to live vicariously through me). The truth was, I had a massive straight-girl crush on a coworker who was about 18 years my senior (and she always reminded me she could have been my Mom… gross…).  Nights in healthcare can get boring. They leave a lot of time for those Sadie-Hawkins dance fantasies. I just happened to turn mine into a novel.

So how do you go from real life inspiration and daydreams to a fictional character? The first thing I pushed myself to do was NOT write from Charlie’s perspective. Since none of you have read Searching for Forever yet (obviously… since it isn’t out), I’ll brief you on Charlie Thompson. Charlie is the 25 year old (my age when I started writing said book) paramedic (almost my job when I started writing said book– I was an EMT) who manages to seduce the somewhat stoic, very straight older Natalie with her charms and good looks (something I definitely did not even attempt while writing said book). It would have been easy to write from Charlie’s vantage point. Not because I consider myself wildly sexy, capible of wooing straight, married doctors, and scoring a perfect 42 on my MCAT, but because she was everything I WANTED to be. A glorified, best version of myself. Of course, now that I’m about to start PA school (pretty darn close to my doctor pipe dream from three years ago), and am living with the girl of my dreams (who is, by the way, a whopping 10 months and a day older than I am), I am much happier being me than I would be being Charlie. But back then would have been a different story.

I challenged myself to write from Natalie’s perspective– someone I have very little in common with. The first page or two (which, by the way, are the first original pages that have since been completely cut from the final copy), I admit I sort of went along with basing her off of the person who inspired her. But that didn’t last long. That’s the thing about writing; if it’s any good, it becomes something completely different than what you started it out to be. Pretty soon, I found myself having to get in the head of a 39 year old physician with a young child in an unhappy straight marriage who was struggling with her sexuality. So how do you do this? How do you write from the point of view of someone you can’t relate to at all?

Simple– sort of. Find that relationship! As I began to write Natalie, and she morphed into someone I felt like I knew, I realized we had more in common than I thought. Natalie was in an unhappy marriage. So was I (albeit her’s was a straight marriage). Natalie had feelings for someone else. So did I (albeit more of a disasterous crush than a lasting romance). Natalie was a physician. I wasn’t (but I worked next to a ton of them, and had been emersed in medicine for enough years to get the jist). I knew nothing about having a young child with a disability. And I knew nothing about being almost 40. Those were by far the most challenging parts to write. And that, my friends, is where the imagination part comes in.

I just finished writing a scene for my second book, Same Time Next Week, where the two characters go sailing. I know very little about sailing– basically, only how to get on the boat and not fall off. While trying to get the “lingo” correct (port and starboard and May Day and all that) I realized something. I didnt have to be a sailing expert to write this. I only had to know just enough to convince my readers. The same goes for your characters. Sure, it helps to write from the point of view of someone who could be your fictional doppleganger. But where’s the challenge in that? Challenge is how we grow, kids!

So that’s my two and a half cents. Think outside the box. Don’t be that writer who just writes themselves as all their characters (we’ve all been there. Trust me!). But use your real life experiences to search for ways to relate to that character! Also, it doesn’t hurt to gain inspiration from people you know. *

*word to the wise– it may be best to avoid telling said people they have inspired said character… depending on context. In my case, the heroine skeleton of Natalie Jenner will remain a mystery. Unless, of course, she, or any former coworkers get ahold of Searching for Forever. In which case, mystery over, folks.

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