A good friend of mine emailed me recently. She’d just finished reading Clean Burn, my crime novel from Exhibit A. Clean Burn’s heroine, Janelle Watkins, is, shall we say, edgy. Janelle comes from an abusive childhood, is twitchy and dark, and has a rather alarming self-destructive habit.
My friend praised the book’s story and the realism of Janelle’s character, but there seemed to be an unspoken question in the email. Out of concern for me, I think my friend was fishing around for information. I think she was wondering if maybe I’d written Janelle’s dark character from personal experience. The short answer–no. The long answer–um, well, no again.
I had a pretty unremarkable childhood. I did get the occasional, rare spanking (it was more the thing to do when I was a kid), but abuse? Uh uh. No way. In fact most often, my mom would wave that wooden spoon around and we’d all take off for the hills. I don’t think she had the heart to actually use it anyway.
Am I harboring any secret, self-destructive habits? Erm, no again, unless you count my occasional over-indulgence in ice cream. I’ve also never been shot in the leg or had an affair with a married man, although Janelle has gone through both of those experiences.
I think it’s pretty fabulous that my friend thought Janelle’s character was so realistic that she worried I’d based her on my own personal experiences. Nice to know I’d written such a convincing, compelling character. But a teensy little part of myself was the weensiest bit annoyed.
Why? Because it ignores a very important part of this character-creation equation. The fact that I’m a professional. I write for a living. Creating realistic characters and making them miserable/heroic/strong with weaknesses/evil with redeeming qualities is part of my job. Creating complex stories that fill a novel, also part of my skill set. Writing dialogue or narrative that intrigues, moves the emotions, keeps the reader reading, ditto.
There’s a piece of writing advice that is oft-repeated, that I’m sure you’ve all heard: Write what you know. That might be where my friend got the notion that I must have gone through something horrible in order to write my character so realistically. But a writer (luckily) has another important tool in her toolbox to draw upon when venturing into the unknown–her imagination. What I don’t know first hand, I imagine. In other words, I make it up.
No, I don’t make up my characters and their stories entirely out of whole cloth. I do take experiences from my own life and from the lives of those I know well (beware, friends, you might end up in one of my books :-)), and I observe the lives of strangers. I read widely, diversely, seeking out the interesting and mundane. All of these elements I weave into a character like Janelle Watkins from Clean Burn, or Kayla 6982 from Awakening, or Sarah Meyer from “The Eighth Gift,” my contribution to the Celebrate holiday anthology.
The end result is indeed a little bit of me in every character. But much, much more of that fictional person is just a figment of my fertile imagination.