Character Study

By December 23, 2014 Writing No Comments

9

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”
–E.L. Doctorow

I had to become a character myself in order to write halfway readable fictional people. For most of my life, but particularly from ages 12-40, which is, come to think of it, most of my life, I wanted so desperately to be mind-numbingly, duller-than-dirt normal. I wanted to squeeze my square-peg personality into the world’s round holes and fit in.

I wanted my small-bore expectations of an average life to compensate for the dull, chronic pangs that set in whenever I tried, with no small degree of desperation, to get people to like me, even my own family members.

What, I wondered, would finally earn me some standard issue friends who did garden variety things like hang out and talk about stuff? What stuff, I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t pass happy people without stabs of jealousy. I would see people in interesting places like nightclubs (in my 20s) or restaurants (30s) and they looked like they were doing that whole living-life-to-the-fullest thing that I was so patently inept at. I’d think: why isn’t that me? What am I doing wrong?

But I was notoriously bad at small talk, and my brain tended to wander off on its own after a few minutes – two things that make me poorly adapted to what most people consider acceptable conversation. Plus, my entire body seemed to resist the pasteurization and homogenization required to blend into this normative stew.

Put simply, I’d freeze up. As in deer-in-the-headlights panicked. All I had to do was show up at a party or on a date or even at an office gathering, and my heart would pound, my ears would flush red, my back would straighten, my eyes bolt themselves wide open. I’d have anxiety attacks at night as I fell asleep, my brain doing a continuous loop, like some bad, neural GIF of the day’s gaffes and social missteps.

I remember the day – the exact moment, in fact – when I decided to change. It was my 40th birthday and my husband took me to Victoria, British Columbia to get away, our toddler son in tow. I wandered the quaint, cobblestone streets, in and out of kitschy shops, and realized I’d likely reached the midpoint of my lifespan. Instead of depressing me, I felt elated, as if a huge weight suddenly evaporated, not simply lifted.

I was no longer young by any standard definition. I could release myself from any idiotic expectation of peer pressure. I could be the lady in purple. I could grow eccentric and strange and finally, at long last, be myself – or some long-lost approximation of myself, or the myself I actually could be. It didn’t matter! I was the me-author, and I could write a new me to go with my aging body and changing expectations.

And as I began working on me, my writing began to improve too. My characters were weirder, less standard-issue, and I was less afraid of giving them personality quirks, odd habits, and sometimes deadly character flaws. They didn’t need to match my own, either – I’d set them loose too.

I’d like to say it worked magically, but it’s 10 years later and I’m just now publishing my first novel. It’s a process, this authoring and self-authoring thing, when you are revising characters, and the first character you revise is yourself. I’m still wondering where my character arc is taking me.

But at least I have a clearer idea of my intended audience — myself. And that’s a good person to try and impress.

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