Thursday, March 26, 2009

From a Place Called Pain

I keep having these epiphanies on character, and my next thought is, Well. Duh. Every dingleberry out there except me probably already knows that  ... 

But this is my challenge as a writer. I accept it.

When I think about my past characters in past books, I think I've been afraid to dole out pain. I don't mean I was afraid to make them confront challenges within the story, including painful challenges. I mean that I've been afraid to dole out imperfections before the story starts. I've been afraid to let them walk into the story already damaged. So they lack the core vulnerability that is the result of living in a hard world that can be cruel and uncaring. 

Why? Well, that's probably a question for another shrink's couch. But from a writer's point of view, this is a problem because no human alive lacks this kind of scar tissue, including myself. So the result was characters who were impossible to relate to because there was no sense of shared humanity. They were ciphers, untouched by the world, who came into the story flawless and blank … in a sense perfect.

Last night, as I was sitting up with a very sick three-year-old, I thought about the pain that we carry into our own stories, and I thought about a particular character in my current WIP and what kind of pain she might be carrying into the story, as opposed to what she will encounter once the story begins. And immediately, almost suddenly, I understood this girl. For the first time, I really saw her in my mind, saw the cornered, angry expression on her face, and then I had a rush of sorrow and protectiveness wash over me for her. She's mine, this character, but if she is to be true, then I can only wish to fix her, knowing that I really can't. Because isn't that it how it always is with the people we love?


Mark Terry said...

I'm not bad about having messed up characters before hand, but I think I have a problem pushing a little deeper to see how that affects them. I've probably done this a bit better with Derek Stillwater (hence, the publications probably), but I think it might be a major problem with some of my other works. It's not enough to just say it's there, it has to inform everything.

Jude Hardin said...

Nicholas Colt has a slew of old scars. His biological father abandoned him at birth...his mother died in a car wreck when he was five...his stepfather stabbed him in the belly with a steak knife when he was fifteen...he was the sole survivor of a plane crash that killed his wife and baby daughter and his band when he was in his 20s...

Gee. No wonder he's kind of cynical at 45. :)

Nice post, Jon. A good reminder to give our characters some emotional and physical wounds before the story gets started.

Erica Orloff said...

All I can say is Amen. :-) You combine your incredible writing chops with vulnerable characters and you, sir, will have a classic on your hands.


LurkerMonkey said...


"It has to inform everything ..."

Yes! My thoughts exactly.

LurkerMonkey said...


Yikes! It sounds like walking out the front door would be an act of courage for Colt.

LurkerMonkey said...


Thanks. I was going to say that I'd settle for sold at this point, but then I realized I'd prefer a classic ... how else am I going to afford my castle?

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