No matter how much you may dislike your antagonist, you know he or she must have at least one redeeming quality. In fact, the more redeeming qualities the better because then your character becomes messier, more complicated, and fundamentally more human. My favorite writers, and I suspect I’m not alone in this, are the ones who force me to see the infinite shades of gray in life. I like being reminded that even the most odious person has a mother who loves them, and, quite possibly, a very cute dog.
It’s this bit of writing characters day in and day out that has altered my real life the most. Now that I write fiction, I find myself paying attention to particularly beautiful turns of phrase. I notice elegant and unexpected descriptions of people, places, and things. Still, day to day, it’s thinking about people in my writing that has changed the way I think about real life the most.
First, as I already mentioned above, there’s the so-true-that-it’s-rather-worn bit of advice that no bad guy thinks of himself as a bad guy. Beyond melodramas, most of us don’t find someone twirling his mustache as he ties his hapless victim to the train tracks all that interesting. We like our characters to be more real, to have quirks, and some substance, too.
Second, there’s the realization that life–like a novel–has central characters, secondary characters, and background characters. In revisions for my next Abish Taylor, Death in the Covenant, my editor suggested I cut the number of secondary characters. She was completely right. The novel became cleaner and tighter. Her advice also inspired me to think of my own life as an editor. From my perspective, I’m a central character, but I’m background for many people in my life. There are some friends where we both play secondary characters in each other’s lives. There are some friends where the relationship is more asymmetrical.
For me, that understanding is both as mundane and profound as knowing that at this moment, I’m my own main character writing in my attic room in our 1930s house in upstate New York. At the same time, I’m a secondary character for my husband as he reads in front of the fire place downstairs (I’m a secondary character because he can hear the clicking of my keyboard), and I’m a background for my daughter enjoying her first spring break on the beach in Alabama and my son doing home work in his room (neither of them can hear my fingers typing).
When we realize that we’re not the center of anyone’s universe but our own, we also realize that everyone we encounter is there own primary character. The world becomes a complex, interwoven series of stories. Some we’re part of, many we are not. We get to be both authors and readers at the same time.
…but, that’s just me, and that’s just one aspect of my perception that has evolved as I write more stories.
What about you? What about writing fiction has had the most impact on the way you inhabit this universe?
What a thoughtful article. Writing minor characters with complexity and inconsistency has made me more aware of the peripheral characters in my life–the bored checker at the market; the man sitting next to me on the airplane who spent an entire two-hour flight reading the same page in his book; the woman at the car dealership, bubbling over with excitement at getting the first new car in her life.