Thursday, May 13, 2010
The Edge of Despair
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??