On the Character/Writer Relationship

Earlier this week, an interview question got me thinking. It was a question about whether, just as I inhabit my characters’ minds in order to write them, my characters return the favor and inhabit my mind.

The most straightforward answer is no. I don’t think about my characters unless I’m writing, or thinking about writing. If I’m trying to make an important life decision, for example, my characters don’t weigh in, nor do I ask myself “What would Katsa or Fire or Bitterblue or Po or Raffin do?” They don’t insert commentary while I’m at the store or the movies or the art museum. If they’re witty speakers, they (unfortunately) don’t inspire me with witty things to say. Nor, except in rare occasions with one particular (pretty random) character, do I ever encounter people in my real life who look like my characters or remind me of them.

The truth, in fact, is that I tend to forget about my characters when I’m not writing them. I was having a conversation with my sisters once in which the subject of (*mild, non-specific spoiler ahead — not for Bitterblue*) “book characters who fall off cliffs” came up. I said that I couldn’t think of any book characters who fall off cliffs. They gave me a funny look, and assured me that if I thought really hard, I might be able to come up with one. It still took me a few minutes to remember that one of my own most important characters falls off a cliff.

I think maybe writers write from a place that isn’t exactly self-conscious — or least I do. So there isn’t exactly a connection between my writing and my “real,” conscious life. When I stop writing and return to my extra-book life, my characters disappear. Other people’s characters wander freely through my mind; I’ll consciously think about characters from the TV I’m watching or the books I’m reading. But in my life, my characters exist for the purpose of writing, and if I’m thinking about them, it’s because I’m writing, or thinking about writing, or thinking about having written them.

That being said, there’s more to the answer. Have you noticed that I’ve been posting the occasional full-fledged rant lately on my blog? I’m so mad at Bank of America that I can’t help blogging about it. I hate the for-profit health insurance industry so much that I can’t help making snarky comments. Just Monday, I mentioned my short fuse, and I can’t count the number of times in recent months I’ve stopped myself from expressing vitriol on the blog, about every news headline I see. Why am I so angry?  I’m now 99% sure it’s because in my daily writing life, I’m writing about an angry character.

All of the following is a slight oversimplification, but — Fire is a character who’s frightened a lot. I realized partway through writing Fire that consequently, I was very close to my own fear (which is largely why writing that book was so uncomfortable. I was frightened all the time). I stopped feeling that particular brand of fear when the book was done. Bitterblue is trapped in a web of confusion, and I’m convinced that this is part of the reason I spent certain sections of the writing of that book wandering in my own, milder, personal confusion. That particular brand of confusion has now passed. These days, I’m close to my own anger, and probably will continue to be, until I make more progress in my current writing project. 

Is this because my characters inhabit my mind? I guess the answer is yes, more or less, somehow. I seem to have a tendency (unconsciously, undeliberately, and often uncomfortably) to filter my own life through the feelings of the characters I’m writing. I suppose it makes sense. I spend so much time in their minds that it’s logical for the boundaries to blur. Also, I’ve been saying that I don’t think about my characters unless I’m writing… but I bet most writers would agree that until a project is completely in the bag, we’re almost always writing it, at every moment, even in the moments when we’re not. Sometimes we’re not writing in the moments when we are, too, but that’s for a whole other post :o).

Anyway. I didn’t make this anger connection until I was asked the interview question, so I’m quite grateful to the interviewer for helping me realize something was going on. Perspective on your own moods is always good!

In other news… this one goes out to my parents. Have y’all ever listened closely to the words of this song? That Gonzo is a poet.