Thursday, July 15, 2010

Gaining Distance from Your Fictional Characters

When Michelangelo carved the Statue of David, he made it to look accurate from the ground while it was on a pedestal. If you were to stand on the same level as the sculpture, it would look disproportional. Sometimes I wonder if all art is like that: Perhaps when an artist perfects their work so that it looks right to everyone else, it will look a bit distorted to them when they stand close to it.

I have been told not to write about things that I'm too close to, and maybe this is why. Maybe the closer you are to something, the farther away you are from your audience. As much as it pained me to distort my own view of reality for the sake of making sense to other people, I kept this in mind when I began my novel. I normally use first person narration, but I had decided to use third person this time mainly because it was my first time writing something so long and I didn't want to be trapped in one person's mind. After the first few pages, I realized that the third person narration helped me to gain some distance. It was less easy for me to fall completely into my lead character Melissa's world, and I made a conscious effort to jump back and forth from her world to the real world. Her actions had to make sense not only to me, but also to the average person reading her story.

I had really slowed down my pace for the sake of doing reality checks. Melissa was driving me nuts. I mean, I couldn't stand her. I actually hated her for the longest time. I didn't dislike her as a person; I would have no problem with her if we met in real life. I just hated that I had created someone like her because she seemed so diluted, so unreal. Every word she said, every thought that crossed her mind was regulated based on my perception of other people's perceptions of what people are normally like. I couldn't let things matter to her more than they mattered to the average person. I couldn't let her coping methods be very different compared to those of the average person. And by measuring her against my perception of the average person, I really distanced her from myself.

For most of my life, my fictional characters were just that - fictional. I saw my characters as individuals, the same way I see other fictional characters.  But when I went to college and felt depressed a lot, my characters became a part of me and understood absolutely everything I felt. They had to because I said so, because they were my creations.  Perhaps I felt betrayed because Melissa wasn't going to be my kindred spirit. I had to push Melissa away from me, force her to live her own life and make her own choices.

What helped was that Melissa was the only character I had really developed before I began writing. While she was set in my mind, my other characters weren't. Unlike my short stories that focus exclusively on one person, in the novel, everyone else had a much bigger role. And since I didn't develop everyone else before starting, they developed naturally, on their own. It's weird - I've heard so many writers say that their characters take over, but I didn't think it could happen to me. I didn't think they'd do anything if I let go of them. It took a long time - about 115 pages - but it all made sense after that. It was okay to be close to my characters again since we had a built-in natural distance. Jumping in and out of their world and the real world has also begun to feel natural and less like I'm compromising the story for other people. I've reached a standing point where it doesn't look distorted to me. At least not completely.

And I have grown to love Melissa Campbell. I gave her the tools to relate to other people, and she just needed some time for those traits to develop naturally. She is less of a kindred spirit to me than other characters have been, but she is the closest character I've ever had to being realistic and relatable. She is my connection to the reader, to the world. I suppose I was jealous in the beginning, when she was closer to the reader than she was to me, but now that I'm with her, she has lead me closer than I have ever come to reaching people. I will always love her for that.

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