Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Author Admission #1: My Characters Are Not My Friends

A couple of years ago I was doing a book signing with several other authors. During a break from the crushing mob of 6 people who came to see us, one of the other writers said to me, "Whenever I'm writing a book my partner has to hold my hand when we walk down the street, because sometimes I see my characters waving to me from the other side of the street and I want to run to greet them." He also informed me that sometimes he finds himself looking at gifts that would be perfect for this or that friend, only to realize when he's in line to pay that the "friend" is one of his characters. He buys the gift anyway.

After telling me these things this man looked at me expectantly, apparently waiting for me to agree that this is indeed a problem. But what I said was, "I can't even remember my characters' names."

This is true. I have to keep a list. At the moment there are 387 names on it, although I have yet to add the names from my last four novels. The most often used name is Pete/Peter (6 times). But usually I use a name only once. And I try never to use my own name, although I see there are three Mikes on the list. But only one is a major character, and he was named after someone I knew in college. I think I called him Mike to remind me of what he was supposed to look like. I do that sometimes, using names as placeholders until the novel is done. Then I go back and use Word's handy find-and-replace function to put in a new name. But sometimes I forget.

My favorite name on the list is Binny Selwidge Houghton, who appears in the novel Looking for It. Actually, Binny doesn't really appear. She has a hospital wing named after her. And her name appears only twice in the whole book, both times on page 241 . Her first appearance is in what is arguably the worst sentence I have ever written:

The fourth floor of Mercy Hospital--recently rechristened the Binny Sellwidge Houghton Memorial Wing, after the wife of a local auto dealership owner who, moved by the staff's treatment of his spouse of fifty-three years during her three-month battle with and subsequent death from cirrhosis of the liver, had donated slightly more than one million in her memory before discovering at her funeral that for more than half of their marriage his beloved helpmate had been carrying on an adulterous affair with his best friend--smelled, as all hospitals do, of disinfectant and decaying flowers.

And two paragraphs later:

Nobody liked working the Christmas shift. It was when the suicides came calling, the alcoholics and manic-depressives who, driven to the brink of distraction by the holidays, decided to finally do something about it. They seldom succeeded, and consequently became the problem of the women and men who had been such a boon to Binny Sellwidge Houghton in her final days. They tended to their charges with barely-disguised irritation, administering (and sometimes withholding) pain pills, inserting thermometers, and doling out tiny paper cups of gelatin colored red and green in celebration of the season.

That is all I know about Binny Selwidge Houghton. And that is all I want to know about Binny.

I'm always amazed when authors say things like, "I was so surprised to discover that [insert name of character] wears polka dot culottes and likes sushi!" Shut up. You invented the person. She likes what you tell her to like. You shouldn't be shocked when she proclaims a fondness for Ozzy Osbourne songs, or William Morris wallpaper, or racing pigeons.

Anyway, I get a lot of mail from readers asking about this character or that character. Usually they want to know what happened to the character after the end of the book. Sigh. Every time this happens I have to go to my name list and figure out what book said character is in. Sometimes I even have to re-read portions of the novel to remember what happened.

I do have some characters I like and remember. Caddie Ransome in Changing Tides. Simon Bird in Looking for It. Jane Goldstein from the Circle of Three series I wrote under the name Isobel Bird. (Although I had to look up Jane's name just now.) These are characters I would have dinner with. But if I ever see them waving at me from the other side of the street, they're on their own. I'll totally pretend not to know them.

Some of you will no doubt find my disinterest in these people cruel. After all, without them my books wouldn't exist. Yes, well without me none of them would exist. For better or for worse, I am their all-powerful god. I choose whether they live or die, fall in love or end up heartbroken, have blueberry pie or low-fat yogurt. I don't take this responsibility lightly, but at some point enough is enough already.

Not that I'm totally heartless. I have cheered characters on, rejoicing when they succeeded and despairing when they failed. But ultimately it's my job to do terrible things to them. If I didn't there would be no stories. Happy endings are fine, but before you get there a lot of awful things have to happen. Perhaps I forget the names out of a sense of guilt. Otherwise I might end up like Dr. Miranda in Death and the Maiden, put on trial by those I've wronged.

Toward the end of her life my paternal grandmother reached a point where she couldn't remember our names. When she wanted to address one of us she'd simply try all the names she could remember--including those of the dogs--until she got it right. Finally she gave up altogether and just called everyone You. Some of my family members insisted she must be sad about this, but personally I think it was an enormous relief to her to no longer worry about keeping all the details straight.

I know how she feels.

1 comment:

amrit said...

Sam and I loved this entry. From now on we are addressing each other as "You"