Catnapped and Doggone
When a character suffers, do I? When a tree falls in the wood and no one hears it, does it fall? I love a good philosophical conundrum.
Contrary to a widely held belief, particularly by those who’ve met me and experienced, first hand, my fast and filleting tongue, I am not Sara. I’m not actually any of the characters I’ve ever written. So, while I strive to live in her head and speak with her voice, strangely like mine, I am not living her life. She does suffer – from insecurities I don’t share, from personal issues I’ve never had and from gun shots that have never been fired in my direction. That’s the physical. I don’t suffer with Sara. She suffers with me.
I am not a Siamese twin with my character but I can’t sit down and write a scene and leave my actual world behind completely. I know that fiction is imagination. There are lots of things that end up in the story that I haven’t personally experienced. But the emotions, they come from somewhere. For example, a bad negotiation for me at work, one with a pinstriped elitist lawyer working for a corporate behemoth morphs into a character taking a swing at a patronizing witness with scary social connections. The character might get arrested but bail can be resolved in Monopoly money and I don’t personally do any hard time. I’m also ready to take on pinstripe pin head in Round 2. A lawyer and a business guy who spend months wasting my time with the endless refrain of everyone else rolls over every time we call ends up as a composite character with a pitchfork sticking out of their chest. It’s a grisly, if satisfying, way to vent my professional spleen. They may be two-dimensional imaginary friends, but they always make me feel better. Even when they have to be sacrificed at the altar of my anger.
On the other hand, I can become fond of characters. I end up liking some of them in a way that makes it difficult to put them in the cross hairs of whatever plot I might be cooking. I may hesitate but I don’t avoid their pain. I am trying to write smart characters. My protagonist has resources, both internal and external, that I can only envy. Her husband is both tough under pressure and tender beyond my scope. Russ Smith, best friend, is funnier and more loyal than my crazy dog. I’m not worried about them. My imaginary friends have proven that they can take anything my evil brain can throw their way. What’s more, they can surprise me while they’re doing it. They can even do so with style and heaven knows they aren’t getting that from me.
I have been working on something new. In it, for the first time, I sacrificed a character I liked, one I empathized with and wanted to survive. But he couldn’t. It didn’t make sense in the context of the story and my wanting him alive compromised my killer’s wanting him dead. Needing him dead. The truth is I empathize with my murderer, too. He’s the most complicated psychological character I’ve ever attempted and his transgressions, great though they may be, aren’t without emotional balance. I felt bad for both of them. One for becoming collateral damage in a plot not of his making and the other for the life, the back story, that made him become the man he is. It wasn’t suffering I felt. It was sympathy. It was recognition. It was compassion. And when it came time for the death, it was done.
I can only hope that my readers respond the same way to my characters and my stories. I don’t want them to feel pain. I don’t want them to suffer. I want them – you – to believe. For that, I have to feel. The characters have to feel. And hopefully you can feel, too.
Thanks for reading -- and don't forget Meredith Cole's new book Dead in the Water is now available. I can't wait to get mine.