Saturday, March 24, 2012

Me and my characters...

The Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood once said that “Writing is reverse incarnation—the flesh made word.”  I think there’s a way where that’s quite true. It’s certainly true in characters. As some of my fellow Word Whores have pointed out in different ways, we’re all in all our characters, or at least some of them.

I don’t think I’ve ever revealed this, but, if you wanted to find me in the Disillusionists trilogy, the Carolyn Crane proxy stand-in character, you would have to look no further than Cubby, the guy in the beginning who loses Justine. Sunny, charmed-life Cubby, who can see a silver lining on anything whatsoever. I’m a total optimist, and Cubby is ripped off from my life, aside from his being male.

Cubby’s polar opposite is doom and gloom Shelby, who believes happiness is just a way of fooling yourself, that there is no such thing as freedom, only shifting prison walls.

Oddly, I have a ton of Shelby inside me too, and I deeply enjoyed delving into her perspective. It was like taking that dark side of myself out wilding. And like Shelby, I hate life-affirming movies. I really do think human beings contain everything, every possibility—every good one, and every bad one, and novelists are wonderfully lucky, because we get to kick and poke at all that through characters.

A friend of mine pointed out recently that when she finishes writing a book, there’s a way in which she is different—she notes that the book writes her as much as she writes the book. I think that’s key, too. Often, the obsessions and issues that are important to me at the time I conceive a project are twisted and torqued to be important to my characters. I don’t worry about a brain hemorrhage as Justine does, but I do think about mortality, and certainly was at the time of writing that book. It wasn’t a conscious plan to have Justine’s obsession be a distorted reflection of my obsession du jour, but then again, as a writer, if you’re going to spend a year or whatever on a  book, you generally will pick subject matter that speaks to you in some way, and I think that amount of intense concentration on it shifts things.

Is Justine a Mary Sue? I sometimes think she could seem like that to others. Outwardly, Justine and I have many similarities: the same hair (until a couple months ago, anyway), residence in a Midwestern metropolis (Justine lives in a fantastical Milwaukee Chicago and I live in Minneapolis) and Justine, like me, overthinks things and can get into worrying in a “footsteps chasing you in the darkness” way. And I used to work in a dress shop.

However, in my mind, I am radically different from Justine. For one thing, she has no pets. Having no pets is unthinkable to me.

And two, Justine Rollerblades, and I run. Rollerblading is unthinkable to me as well. I did it once, and so didn’t get it. I see people rollerblading around where I run, and they seem like an alien species.

In the end, I think the superficial similarities and differences are meaningless, except it’s handy to be able to describe a Midwestern city, or a specific kind of job I already know. It's really the internal similarities that are important. 

In the end, I do think the way I am truly like my characters, especially my main characters, are totally submerged and hidden to readers…hidden, even to myself!!

…cue outer space music…


  1. HA! I can roller skate like crazy...rollerblade, not at all. The one time I tried, when I thought I had a decent bit of speed going on, a man walking his dog passed me.

    Walking. His. Dog. WALKING.

    More seriously, tho, the point you made about the book writing you really resonated with me. What I put my characters through requires I think about it a lot. So while I haven't actually been through it, mentally, I have. Some may be things I wanted to explore and did so through the safety of a fictional character. Some of it is stuff I'd never want to know more about, but for the book I learn and push into that weird place.

    Does this mean that writing, for me, is like piloting my own NC-1701? heh heh

    1. Walking his dog he passed you. That is hilarious. It is hard to rollerblade! Now I will think of you when I see THOSE rollerbladers.

      And yes, there is the stuff you don't want to learn more about, but suddenly must...or run the risk of separating from the saucer section!

  2. Linda - that is too funny!

    Great post, Carolyn. You wrote Justine so well that I did wonder if you shared her fears and hypochondria. All of your characters are so well-drawn, with their deep flaws. And I agree - writing is a way of exploring problems and ideas, in a way that can be transformational. Hmmm.

  3. Mmm. I really like this concept of putting our characters into situations we might be too afraid of exploring on our own...