Characters as Their Own People

Costume display in a shop in Riga, Latvia

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

Today’s excerpt deals with one of the most difficult things to explain to non-writers: the independence of our own characters. We writers glibly talk about how our characters fascinate us and how they do completely unexpected things, and we can sense non-writers’ disbelief when we say this. In fact, I can feel non-writers extending to me the same disbelieving indulgence we often extend to overly enthusiastic pet owners when they relate the anthropomorphized antics of their “fur babies.” I can feel non-writers thinking, Yeah, but she just made that character up. It’s not doing anything on its own. Of course she’s just told it what to do.

But I haven’t.

Again, I’ll turn to dreams for a comparison. You make up your own dreams: they take place inside your own head, out of your own imagination. The characters in them are just something you made up. And yet those characters often surprise you, or even terrify you. How can that be possible?

It’s possible the same way my characters can surprise me.

My new stories come to me as snippets of film, as a kind of guided dream. By the time I start to write, I’ve watched enough “film” to have a rough idea of what’s going to happen. But I won’t really get to know my characters until I’ve followed them around for an entire first draft and watched them during lots of small moments. Because it’s one thing to know that a character is forgetful, but it’s another thing to see that character forgetting and then trying to cover up that forgetting, minute by minute, in interactions with family and friends. Then I can see just what that forgetfulness costs my character, how she feels about it, and what habits and tricks of speech she’s developed to gloss over those awkward moments. Is she embarrassed? Is she annoyed with herself? Does she even care? The rough draft will teach me those things.

In today’s excerpt, I’ve just noticed in my daughter Valerie some suspicious behavior that I had previously only seen in a character: Miranda, the protagonist of In the Coils of the Snake. Without knowing Miranda, I don’t think I would have picked up on this dangerous behavior so quickly.

Again, it’s hard to explain to non-writers just how much we writers learn about life by observing our characters. Take the habit in question today: cutting, or self-harm. Non-writers tend to think about that habit in complete isolation, without exploring its context: “Cutting? That’s ridiculous! Damaging the body like that. I’d never do such a thing!” But if a writer has a character who cuts, that writer doesn’t have the luxury of isolation anymore. I had to watch Miranda’s habit unfolding within the context of her whole personality and the circumstances of her life. I was forced to confront how similar cutting is to certain nervous habits I myself had had. And that gave me a tremendous amount of empathy and compassion for Miranda—feelings I was then able to feel for my injured daughter. We got Valerie to psychiatric treatment right away.

This excerpt comes from page 75.

A day or so later, I noticed Valerie’s hand. I stopped and took a closer look. It wasn’t the alternating blue and black nail polish on her fingers. I was used to that by this time. Joe threw out her bottles of dark nail polish, but she kept getting her hands on new ones.

No, this was different: a round red scab. It looked odd. It looked . . . wrong.

“Valerie!” I said. “What happened there?”

“Oh, that,” she said. “It’s no big deal. It’s just a burn.” And then, looking oddly pleased: “It doesn’t even hurt.”

Doesn’t hurt? What kind of burn doesn’t hurt?

“Is that—Valerie, were you smoking? Is that a cigarette burn?”

“Yeah, Momma, but it wasn’t me, it was Matthias. Just an accident—you know, talking with his hands.”

“Oh. Okay . . .”

That afternoon, I went up to the garret room and tried to spend time with Martin. I stared at the keyboard and tried to go to his colorful, artificial world. But instead, it was another character my imagination kept showing me, a beautiful auburn-haired girl, richly dressed, with a Mona Lisa smile on her face. Her brown eyes were cool and worldly, but her fingers, quick and nervous, were ripping away at torn skin.

It was an old habit. Miranda had hoarded her injuries even when she was very small for the pleasure of watching Marak heal them. Later, she had sneaked the nursemaid’s scissors to administer her own cuts. It made her proud to bear pain without a murmur: she felt that she had mastered herself. Some days, when the household was particularly harsh to her, it seemed the only thing she could control.

I hadn’t intended to write about this topic. It was Miranda’s own idea. But I could pinpoint the exact moment when I had learned her secret. I was watching her carry on witty conversation with the goblin King. Her face was a perfect mask, smiling and beautiful. But down at her side, her fingers—those nervous fingers—

Miranda’s a cutter! I had said to myself with that shock of true discovery that comes when a character does something unexpected. Of course! She’s under so much stress, she has to have an outlet. Pain brings her a little relief.

And when I had said that—was I remembering myself as a little grade-school freak, tearing open scabs of my own?

The pain was like a friend, sharing her silent vigil . . .

Oh, yes. I had understood.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books and Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. Photo of a costume display in a shop in Riga, Latvia, copyright 2015 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

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