Originally uploaded by Aeioux.
Recently someone asked me a question about my writing that sent me into a tailspin. It was a simple, straightforward question really, but it set off the kind of thought process that causes me to walk around my house for an hour talking to myself. (I'd prefer to walk on the local beach of course, but the arm flailing and muttering that accompanies intense thinking for me might scare the seagulls--not to mention the unsuspecting humans who just came out to walk their dogs, or to feel the spray of salt against their faces.)
Anyway, the straightforward question, the very good, legitimate question involved how I knew what a certain character felt, what I tapped into to understand that character's emotional reaction to a devastating event.
I tried to think up something in my own life that was close to what my character had experienced; and though I could have given some vague, glib answer, it would have been false. I personally knew nothing about what my character had undergone.
But as a writer, I knew everything about it, because see, I was there. And because I know that character as well--no, better, than I know myself. The only thing I can't explain is how I came by that knowledge.
Though I hadn't even written about the event in question--a fatal car crash--directly, I knew the exact bend in the road where it occurred. I knew the sounds that accompanied it, and the shattering silence that waited in its aftermath. An emptiness that would linger on the road, and in the house, and in the pit of my character's stomach for days and weeks and years to come.
So my dumb answer to the question of how I know what she felt is not a cogent response, but another question: Where did this character come from in the first place; and how did she get into my brain?
For some writers, the answer is clearly that they find their characters around them. They write about themselves or their mothers, their faithless lovers, or the kid who tormented them in fifth grade. Other writers claim to create "composites" from life.
But mostly, when I write fiction, I don't invite friends or family inside the story. I prefer to build a house, to pave the streets of a metaphorical city, and then see who shows up, whether they speed on the highway or travel back roads at a leisurely pace, and what they have to say. Then, for an hour or a couple of years, depending on the length of the piece I'm working on, I give them the run of the place.
I let them infect my dreams, and hound me with their obsessions. I learn how they take their coffee, what music triggers depressing memories, and whether they can dance or not. I walk around my house with my head in my hands listening to their voices, and then I go to the computer and spill everything I've seen and heard.
Not to get too metaphysical and creepy about it, but it's not all that different from a possession or a haunting. Once one of these so-called characters enters my house, the only way for me to be free of them is to tell their story. Exactly as they want me to tell it.