Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Edge of Despair

By Kelli

My father, who was born in rural Kentucky, dirt poor, and the son of a coal miner, instilled me with an adage:

Character is built on the edge of despair.

If you've ever been to that area of the country, or know about its history, despair is a condition all too understandable -- it's a region impoverished, environmentally pillaged, with a culture all but forgotten. But those words--phrased poetically, like much of the songs and folkways of the area--express the benefits of pain and the strength of hardship.

Of course, my view is that I've got plenty of character, thank you. :)

But if we look at the maxim from the point of view of creating characters ... it takes on a whole new dimension.

My characters must feel completely real to me, fully-formed, not sprung from Chapter One. They arrive with memories, a life complete with back stories small and large (even if they haven't told them to me yet), a history seasoned with struggles, hardship, happiness, joy, anger, hard work, jealousy, passion, revenge, love, hope, depression, ambition, desires, guilt, and despair.

Pain and suffering is a part of anyone's life-and in my view, a person who risks his or her career or heartbeat to find justice for the helpless is someone who not only empathizes with victims, but has probably been one in the past--a victim who survived, who understands pain and cruelty and violence.

Like ourselves, characters search for methods to cope with the bad things in life. Miranda is in a darker place than Arcturus--her pain is more complete. But both understand what it means to suffer.

So yes--I suffer with them. I cry when they hurt, I cry when other characters die and get hurt, and I cry when the book is finished, because I miss them and miss their world and miss the bond we've shared for pages and chapters and calendered weeks, as time dissolves back into my own reality.

I don't feel like their creator. I feel like a chronicler, a kind of empath who travels along with them, experiencing what they experience.

They are characters built on the edge of despair, but they pulled back from the cliff and haven't given in ... and I hope they'll keep readers from giving in, too.

By the way--my family claims I'm hard to live with while writing ... can you imagine??


Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

Chronicler. Love that word.
As much as we would like to guide and even protect them characters like all of us make choices they and we have to live with.
Insightful post -- lots of food for thought.
Giggles and Guns

Sophie Littlefield said...

i imagine i'm hard to live with while writing too...except um that's pretty much 24/7! I'm so glad i didn't marry me or pick me to be my mom.

Shane Gericke said...

You? Hard to with with when you write? Say it ain't so, Soph!

Shane Gericke said...

And Kel, I find it impossible that you would be impossible whilst writing. No way!

Bill Cameron said...

I muttered something in an earlier post about how I believe storytelling is about empathy, so I'm with you.

I'll toss out one way we differ though. While I agree chronicler is a powerful metaphor, I tend to resist the idea that my characters somehow have an independent existence. I feel it's important that I acknowledge that I am their creator, for good or ill. The danger, I feel, is if I abdicate my control of who and what they are, I risk losing control of the narrative. Stories, I feel, *seem* to reflect reality, but in fact they serve as representations of a particular construct — one which we have created.

Reality is messy, contingent, random. Constructed narratives and the characters we people them with serve as a way to make sense of this crazy reality. The choices we make as creators determine the effectiveness of our representations. We've all heard the old saw truth is stranger than fiction. Of course it is. The real world often makes no sense — fiction *has* to make sense. Control is paramount.

Another side to the ideas of characters possessing an existence independent of ourselves is it separates us from our own creation. It allows us both an opportunity for false modesty and absolves us of responsibility. If some crazy character takes on a life of her own, well, that's not our fault, is it?

These are subtle points, perhaps, and arguably a semantic ones. In the end we each have to own our process. For me, if I'm chronicling anything, its my own attempt to make sense of the madness.

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks, Maribeth. :)

I prefer to think of it that way, because while I have to guide my characters' actions--I write crime fiction novel and pace is important--I don't want to become self-conscious about my subconscious.

Down that road is writer's block, big time--at least for me.

Thanks again for stopping by!


Kelli Stanley said...

Soph, all I can say is we're very glad you're living in the writing world as often as possible, and that (like Shane) I can't envision you as EVER hard to be around. :)

You're awesome, sweetheart!!



Kelli Stanley said...

Aw, Shane, I miss youse. :)

Thanks, sweetie. I'm very vulnerable when my subconscious is open (which it needs to be when I'm focusing on getting a book done), and that makes me one overwrought nerve ending, all frazzle-dazzle and fear and anxiety. Huge amounts of insecurity, though I try to hide it underneath my hat. ;)

Makes it tough on my family. They have to reassure me that ridicule and vitriol flung from an internet corner (City of Dragons makes some people very angry) does not mean I'm a bad or unsuccessful writer.

I'd feel better if I could fight back against obvious attacks (not reviews--attacks), but we're supposed to take abuse and keep mum about it--not an easy path for me to take. Especially when I don't have a TV show. ;)

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Bill-Bill. :)

I think we're on the same page, we just think about how we get there a little differently. For me, there are aspects about the act of writing that can't really stand a glaring light, because then they're dissipated, dissolved--never recovered.

So I look at mechanics, structure accordingly, and use a loose outline to keep the pace and plot on target. But in between the dots, I let go.

For me, control is the preliminary preparation. The rest is the real enjoyment, of seeing where your world -- and your characters -- will take you.

Terry Stonecrop said...

I agree with your father about the edge of despair. A wise man. I like that your characters haven't given in to it.

Thoughtful post. Lots to mull over.

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks, Terry! :)

I get tempted to give in, too ... sometimes the sheer ugliness of human behavior can be overwhelming. But, thankfully, so is the surprising nobility, the unexpected tenderness.

My dad also likes to say "Think kind thoughts." :)


Terry Stonecrop said...

I like your father:) I'll try to remember to think kind thoughts, especially when people don't seem to understand good manners, never mind kindness.