Coincidence

You know how it goes: you meet an interesting person, you spend time with the person, you learn more about the person’s personality, and sooner or later you realize this person would make a great character in your current Great-American-Novel-wannabe.

Fair enough. So you write the person into your story (not forgetting a disclaimer at the beginning: “any resemblance to real persons, living or deal, is purely coincidental”). Cool stuff, you think. Drawing from nature gives an authentic, realistic twist to the character, to his actions, to his dialogue; he won’t be a two-dimensional stereotype! Huzzah!

But.

Have you ever met a real-life person you’ve already written as a character?

A lot of the time, it’s just physical appearance. You’re walking through the mall, the airport, the art museum (particularly conducive to wistful pondering), and you see someone. Perhaps it’s a woman with long dark curls and a red scarf. Perhaps it’s a string-bean of a boy with a look of bubbling-over enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s a small child, of sobering countenance and an already-furrowed brow. You don’t think anything of it at first, and you continue with your shopping or pondering or what have you. After a moment, though, you take a double look. Maybe your main character’s mom has hair like that. Maybe your main character’s girlfriend’s kid brother loves flying, too. Whatever it is, the image has been cemented in your mental character photo album, and you go home with a smile curling around your lips, as you silently thank that complete stranger for validating your character’s existence, giving him a physical reality as well as a mental.

Sometimes, though, it’s the full character. It’s the person’s laugh and the person’s smile. It’s the way the person walks and his turns of phrase and his aversion to tuna — or loud noises — or leather couches. What you will. And you can study the person, listen to his tone of voice, watch his facial expressions, note his reactions in different situations, and laugh inwardly as you realize that is exactly how your character would act.

Weird, huh?

Life is stranger than fiction, they say. Life imitates art. It’s one thing to observe the world around us taking on characteristics of our representations of the past world … but to meet someone and realize this person looks, acts, speaks, and thinks just like one of your brain children is, perhaps, one of the strangest deja-vu feelings ever.  But no matter how tempted you are to tell the person, “You’re just like my character!” — better not. I’m guessing the character would be embarrassed for you.

Characters

Writing. One of the most therapeutic and yet, simultaneously, traumatic exercises of the human mind, particularly in the matter of characters. Like they say: no pain, no gain. It’s banging your head against a brick wall until the bricks give way. It’s jumping out of your bathtub and running naked through the streets of Athens. It’s trying to pull open a “PUSH” door. It’s Athene springing from Zeus’ head. It’s singing and vomiting and parkour and drowning and Zumba and flying and childbirth all in one. 

Let me explain.

Some girls get teary-eyed over characters they read about in books, or watch on film. They become attached to the characters; they learn the characters’ personalities, their likes and dislikes, their quirks, their habits, their favorite colors and the reasons they play violins at three in the morning.

Playing a violin at three in the morning can be an endearing habit to, say, a girl who has a crush on that character. But how does that character’s mother feel about that? Or, for that matter, his flatmate?

The writer not only learns and knows these quirks and habits, but creates them, develops them, gifts the characters with them — or, worse, discovers them in a character. Yes, everything people say about characters developing their own personalities is true. Many characters require a lot of development: the writer has to sit down and “manually” decide a character’s height, age, eye color, temperament, birthday, favorite book, favorite piece of jewellery, favorite childhood toy. These characters do just fine in life; they’re the ones who settle down and marry and have 2.1 children and watch football and work for insurance companies. Some characters, however, just walk into a story; sometimes, they saunter in casually as a background character, then become more and more important, until they finally overwhelm the entire plot. Others barge through the front door, tracking in mud all over the Persian rug your aunt brought you back from her last trip, dumping their luggage in the middle of the floor, shouting or singing or whistling or blowing their noses, doing their very best to act like they belong there. 

Yes, Basil, I’m talking about you. 

— but you don’t need to meet him. Not yet. He needs to grow up a little. Sigh. If only that were possible … 

So, yes. Some characters are born, some are discovered, some just gatecrash whatever project the writer is working on at the moment. And when a writer creates or discovers or is gatecrashed by a character, nine times out of ten, that character sticks. Like bubblegum to the underside of a sixth-grade desk. 

And you learn to love them. And you become attached to them (because, as we all know, when you name something, you become attached to it). You begin to understand the violin sessions. You might lose sleep over them, but at the same time, you know your nights would echo with emptiness without them.

 

You take the character with you, where ever you go, whatever you do. If he behaves himself, you introduce him to your best friends — shyly, cautiously, hoping he make a good impression (“What do you think? Is he too snobby? But he’s really nice, usually …promise!”). You start thinking more and more about him, until you catch yourself and realize you’re obsessed. If he were a real person, it would be called love, but of course, you can’t tell your great-aunt you’re engaged to a figment of your imagination. Sigh. 

And then suddenly, he dies on you.

I mean, think about it. Your favourite character in your favourite TV show on your favourite TV channel pulls a Bunbury and dies (yes, I’m talking about *him.*). Fans shake their fists and blame the director, or the writer, or the actor, but whatchya gonna do? The character is dead. So you pull out your emergency stash of jelly beans/Dove chocolates/jammy dodgers (or what’s left of it — it’s been an emotional season) and curl up in a down comforter and re-watch every episode. Twice.

Writers can’t do that. 

We stare at the screen, that horrid little space bar thingy incessantly blinking — the last inch of space before the fall off the cliff into the oblivion of character Hades. He dies. Wait, what do you mean? That’s not supposed to happen! You shout at the computer; you get up and stomp off to the kitchen for more tea; you come back, and he’s still lying there, the pool of ink slowly congealing beneath his still, cyber-frozen body. 

Fans cannot understand. There is no way to bring back a character. When his time has come, he is gone. When he decides, that decision is final. No amount of re-writing can undo the sight, the image, the vision of the house in flames, the family in funereal black, the broken-hearted heroine cradling the clay-cold head. 

***

Ok, so it doesn’t happen to every character. Somehow it doesn’t happen to female characters, or dull characters, or evil characters. Is it just me? Is it just a hero thing? This post wasn’t supposed to go all melodramatic, but there you go. Heroes die. Characters die. And after a short time of ultimate misery, the writer slaps herself and opens up that Exel file again. Did she remember to add a column for gas expenses? Drat it.