The other day, I saw a shirt that read: “People who say you only live once have never read a book.” Needless to say, this resonated with me. It also made me think about a question that I get asked a lot, although perhaps never in more detail than a few years ago by my friend, Jane Noel.
Jane asked, “How do you relate to your characters? Who are your favorites? What do you have in common with them? How long do they stay with you after you finish their story? Are there some that you just don’t like?”
I never really answered Jane’s questions except in the most general sense. The last of her questions is the easiest to answer.
Of course there are some characters I “just don’t like.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I can get into my antagonists’ heads and develop their motivations. They may know perfectly well that something they’re doing would be viewed by society as “evil” or “wrong.” However, even understanding that when these characters do something self-serving or cruel, they don’t necessarily see themselves as “evil,” doesn’t mean I need to like them.
Honestly, outside of fairytales, few characters do see themselves as “evil.” But I’ve discussed that elsewhere, and so will leave the topic behind for now.
Jane’s other questions were much harder for me to answer. I think I put off answering them until today because I never saw the right way to explain how I feel about my characters.
Unlike some writers, I don’t write protagonists who are thinly veiled, sometimes idealized, versions of myself. And I don’t write secondary characters who exist only to be foils to the protagonist or plot elements to move the story along.
I’d get bored out of my mind if I wrote only protagonists who were meant to be me (whether in a Fantasy setting or with a switch of gender or species or whatever). I realize some people write to work out their personal problems or to provide themselves with the satisfaction of being the hero in fiction that they can’t be in reality. However, until I saw the shirt mentioned above, I didn’t really realize that I write precisely not to be myself, but to explore a whole bunch of different incarnations.
In that light, Jane’s questions become much easier for me to answer.
How do I relate to my characters? I relate to my characters as if they are interesting people about whom I happen to know a whole lot more than you are ever privileged to know about the “real” people in your lives. Because I know so much about them – often much more than ever makes it to the page – I feel a deep sense of empathy with them, even when they are doing something I don’t really like or think is wise.
“Who are your favorites?” I don’t really have favorites. Even though I’ve spent much more time with Firekeeper (six long novels beginning with Through Wolf’s Eyes) than I have with Mira from Child of a Rainless Year, each of them took me places and gave me experiences I could not have had without them. So I care deeply for them all.
“What do you have in common with them?” Well, as I said above, I have their entire lives in common with them. Since this question could also mean, “What aspects of your life do you draw on for specific characters?” I’ll go on and say too many and too varied for me to even try to list. Something non-writers often forget about characters – even main characters – is that writers don’t create them just by recycling parts of themselves and their own experiences.
“How long do they [your characters] stay with you after you finish their story?” They stay with me forever. However, I do develop a certain amnesia regarding the details of how the book or story itself was written. That’s actually very cool. When I have had to review older work – as when Tor re-released Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls or when I re-read a bunch of my shorter work to compile my short story collection, Curiosities – I found it was possible to read those older works almost as if a stranger wrote them.
It was very nice to realize that Jane Lindskold the Reader actually is a fan of the works of Jane Lindskold the Writer.
So, Jane Noel (and the rest of you), there’s an answer to the question of how I relate to my own fictional characters. It’s been fun to have a lot of different incarnations. I look forward to having many, many more.
Oh… This is a good time for me to remind you that I welcome reader questions. I have a lot more fun writing the Wednesday Wanderings when I know that at least one person will be interested in what I have to say.