Sunday, March 13, 2011

In the Name of Love

A few years ago, when I finished reading the seventh Harry Potter book, my first thought, upon closing the cover of that magnificent book, was not about how the series had affected me, but to wonder what J. K. Rowling felt like now that she was done writing about Harry, Ron, Hermione, Snape, Dumbledore, and all the other remarkable characters with whom she had been living for the past fifteen years.

Writers have a much different experience of their characters than do readers. While I can appreciate the many layers of Snape's character and envy Rowling for creating a character like Dumbledore, I'm an observer only. It's much different on the inside.

Writers feel their characters. We hear them whisper to us, know what they long for, experience their sorrows on a deep, visceral level. They are like our children, but more than that. They live inside our bodies and minds, and we watch them develop and grow, become multi-layered, complex beings. Like children, they start out as single-cell organisms, simple. Something happens to them, they react. Then, we figure out why they reacted that way. They acquire history and a backstory. We write about their actions, what they look like. A simple change of hair color or the way a character stands, can reveal an entire strata of meaning we didn't know about before. And that moment of understanding, of looking into the character's eyes and figuring out just what this person (because that is what they come to feel like after awhile) has been trying to tell us, feels like falling in love.

The relationship is far from one way, either. Because our characters seem to know they need us to tell their stories, they come to us willingly. They want us to know things about them. Many, many years ago while I was working on another novel, I was having trouble with the female protagonist. I couldn't get her exactly right. I wasn't understanding what would cause her to act the way she was in the story (yes, I was creating the story, but, sometimes, in the act of writing, things flow onto the page you didn't expect, and then you've got to figure out what to do with them). So I set up a meeting. I was freelancing a lot during this time and doing one or two interviews a day, so I decided to interview her.

We met for tea in my office. If I remember correctly, I actually did set up a tea cup for her opposite my own. Then I sat down and started asking questions in my notebook and writing her answers as they came to me. "Why do you keep pushing Peter away?" "What did his drawing mean to you?" "How do you feel about the time you saw each other in New York?" As I did this, I heard her voice in my head, more clearly than what I'd been hearing while I was writing the novel (which was told primarily from the male protagonist's point of view), and I started to get a picture of her in my mind as she sat across the table from me. And then, I realized, she was holding her right hand in her left and massaging the back of her hand. It was a stress reaction, something she did when she was uncomfortable. So I asked, "What's going on with your hand?" And she told me. Her mother was an alcoholic who had thrown a copy of Gray's Anatomy (her father was a doctor) at her during a drunken rage (she'd been sent home from private boarding school because alcohol had been found in her dorm room, left there by a roommate who had moved out). She'd put her hand up to protect herself but the force of the book falling against her hand had broken it. Furthermore, she wouldn't let her mother touch it, but waited several hours until her father came home so he could take care of it. Several hours in excruciating pain. This told me a lot about why she'd been so reluctant to speak to me before this, why she was such a difficult character to get to know. She didn't trust people easily. But it also told me, this woman could be incredibly resilient, incredibly strong-willed. It told me, in short, the things I needed to know to be able to write her effectively and compellingly.

I write this because, in the chronology I've worked out for Altar, this is the weekend Denny dies. March 12. The funeral is the 16th. All this past week, I kept thinking I needed to get candles to light for Denny. While it made sense in a certain way, it wasn't something I'd felt such a strong need to do in previous years. Then it hit me. This is the last year I'm going to be with Matt and Denny. The book is almost finished. And, even though I'll most assuredly be doing revisions if it sells, I won't be creating these characters in the same way ever again. These are our last days together in such intimate company. While I feel as sense of joy and accomplishment at that, there is still a measure of sorrow that these characters will no longer be my constant companions. I'll be moving on to a new set of characters, falling in love with them in the way I have fallen in love with Matt and Denny and Alan and Rachelle and all of them.

So I have two candles on my desk, one for Matt and one for Denny, and I light them when I start writing and blow them out when I'm done. Nothing magical has happened because I've done this, it's just enough that it's been done.

Writers sometimes talk about a mourning period after a book is finished. They talk about needing a period of not writing to give the previous book some honored space, or of not being able to move forward right away with the next project no matter how hard they try. Which is why, after the seventh HP book was released, I read interviews with Rowling with increasing disappointment, and would have loved to have interviewed her myself. I would have asked her how it felt to no longer be in such close contact with her characters, if they still came to her with lines of dialogue or thoughts about the action, and if she worried about being able to fall in love with a new set of characters as deeply as she had with these. Because, it was clear from her writing that she loved each and every one of them, and understood that if you don't love your characters, no one else will.

1 comment:

Traci said...

I love the idea of actually physically sitting down with your character--or at least setting up the physical space in that way. I've interrogated mine before but never in such a "face to face" sort of way, and the next time I do, I'm totally offering them something to drink and a plate of fresh baked goods! What a wonderful way to show your character how much you care about them. I was thinking about this the other week, how in my favorite books I even like the villains, and how I only have respect and admiration for my current antagonist. I think it not only makes for compelling reading but compelling writng as well. I really need to love my characters in order to keep writing them.