It’s been a busy few weeks for me, in spite of the fact that I DO NOT have a book out this month. It’s been filled with new and exciting projects, which always makes me happy.
I got an email from a reader/online friend (and I hope she doesn’t mind me referencing it!) after she read an advanced copy of Heir to a Desert Legacy. She was asking me if I personally had gone through any similar struggles to my characters, because they do always seem to be very broken.
This got me thinking. Because honestly, I haven’t gone through anything remotely like what my characters have been through! Okay, no surprise with some of them. I doubt many of you thought I’d lost my family in a terrible accident and had to become ruler of my small desert nation by default. However, I’ve dealt with a lot of issues: domestic violence, crucifixion at the hands of the media, physical scars, the loss of a child, neglect…that I’ve never personally had to face.
But, I do know people who have been through these things. Actually, the second manuscript I wrote, which I’ve never sent anywhere and probably never will…was sort of the start of this method of writing. I’m a fixer. I want to fix things for people and sometimes you can’t. I have a cousin who lives with an abusive husband. It’s a terrible thing. We’ve tried to help, we HAVE helped her leave, but she goes back.
I wrote my second MS shortly after she went back to him again. In that MS I have a heroine who left her abusive husband for the sake of her child. And in the end, of course, finds love with a tall, dark and gorgeous hero who treasures her.
So there’s that aspect to my characters, a need to fix the things I see happening around me. It’s a control freak approach to writing, I’m sure. But it’s a source of inspiration for me, and more than that, it creates stories that I HAVE to get out of me sometimes.
But not every situation stems from my real life. I don’t know anyone with horrible burn scars like Ella, my heroine from The Highest Price to Pay.
This is where my theory about being a ‘student of people’ comes in. People react in wholly unpredictable and varying ways to different traumas in their lives, and in general, there isn’t a right or wrong answer to how they respond to things. This is what makes writing characters A) so freaking hard. B) so awesome.
Because you could take the same backstory and apply it to a different character and come up with something totally new, because people are so variable.
But putting together actions, reactions and feelings that match a character and make sense in context with their background DOES require thought because there isn’t a stock standard reaction to all of life’s situations.
You don’t have to have experienced something to write about it, but you should sit down and really think about WHY your characters are reacting how they do. You should try to understand. Analyzing people is a helpful exercise, also crazy making, but helpful. Pondering people’s motivations, and not JUST the actions, is helpful. It’s not just about what they do, or what they’ve been through, but…at the risk of sounding like a stereotypical movie psychiatrist…how it makes them FEEL.
But how they feel is where the personal comes in. It’s where you start injecting what IS personal into things that aren’t. This is an important one, IMO, because it’s where your readers will relate to these characters as well. I don’t have burn scars, but like Ella, I know what it’s like to feel lacking in appearance (most of us who lived through our teenage years do) and I could use those feelings, those personal insecurities, to help tap into Ella’s and get them across on the page.
With a character like Ella, or Clara from One Night in Paradise, or Paige from Her Little White Lie (they’re definitely the character’s who most closely share my own issues…) it’s not about me having been shamed in high school like Paige (I wasn’t) or having a contentious issue with my mom like Clara (I don’t) it was relating on the level of feeling like you don’t fit it, like you’re ‘wrong’ in some way. Then it’s kind of easy (and revealing and emotional) flesh out their characters.
But what about with a character like Jessica from At His Majesty’s Request? I don’t share any of her issues, personally. I haven’t been divorced, I haven’t had a hysterectomy or serious health issues. But again, the point at which Jessica and I relate is that little place of feeling like there’s something that might make me not quite right. Something that makes me undesirable (rest assured, also, I’m not a total ball of insecurity, I borrow a lot from high school drama past) and that’s where I can inject my personal pieces into the MS.
I think what my long and rambling post is trying to say is that you can tackle all manner of issues, and you don’t have to have experienced them to do it. But at the core of these major issues are very relatable human emotions that we all. Sayid from Heir to a Desert Legacy has very little in common with me. Male, sheikh, lost his whole family, now having to rule a country. But the heart of his issues: not feeling up the task, afraid of failing everyone…that’s relatable. We’ve all had that fear.
And that’s the real challenge. Looking beneath the big issues to find the essence of the emotion.
With me? WITH ME?