where characters originate, and the mangled mathematician

Update on the Mathematician: he’s got a herniated disc. C4-C5, which is shorthand for the cervical spine.

So my question to women reading this: do you find it a little odd that they refer to the upper part of the spine — just below the neck — as cervical? Because my mind goes someplace very different when I hear that word. A place men don’t have to worry about when it comes time for an annual exam.

Nomenclature aside, we know what’s wrong. Now it’s just a matter of getting him in to see the neurosurgeon. Hopefully early in the week, but we have been warned about delays. Not that I’ll settle for any such thing, of course. I am quite willing to speak up and advocate for me and mine.

Which brings me to the subject of how real life reflects on the writing process and characterization. It has to be obvious that no character is created in a vacuum. Any character I put on a page can only come from my personal experience, fifty years of interacting with other human beings (both real and fictional) in a variety of settings. Pam’s comment on this topic:

It seems so exposed to be a writer. Turning your thoughts inside out for others’ pleasure.

How true. You put books out there and people are curious about the characters and the author and the connection between the characters and the author. One of the most irritating questions to come from a reader is this: “Is your character [insert name] based on you?”

So if my characters aren’t me, who are they? The only possible answer is that each character is an amalgam of people I have interacted with over the course of my life. Some only in passing, on a bus or at a dry cleaning counter or in a cab. Sometimes five or ten minutes with a person you’ll never see again has such an impact that you know, sooner or later, you’ll be drawing on that experience in your writing.

An example out of my own life.

About eight years ago I was in Seattle to read and sign books. I was up on Capitol Hill and I had to get downtown. As it happened, I ended up sharing the cab. No problem, I’ve done that many times without incident, though this was my first such experience in Seattle.

The woman who shared the cab with me was maybe thirty-five, tall and slender and blond. Completely normal looking human being, wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase and a suitcase. Well groomed. We made small talk as we waited for the cab. The cab pulls up and the driver gets out to put the other woman’s suitcase in the trunk.

The cab driver was a woman of about sixty, very lean and athletic looking. Very short hair.

“Oh great,” said the blond. “A dyke. I’ll hold on to my suitcase.”

She said this loud enough for the driver to hear her. I froze in place. I would have cut out, but I was already late for my reading. So I climbed in, and the blond climbs in with her suitcase. And she’s chattering away at me, mostly about Seattle, restaurants, shopping. She mentioned a particular restaurant and a street and the cab driver said, very politely: “Actually that restaurant is on X Street.”

The blond’s face contorts and she snaps her head forward. “Nobody is talking to YOU.” Really loud. “Nobody wants YOUR OPINION.” Louder. “Mind your own business, you fuckin LESBO.”

I was shocked out of my skin, but I managed to stutter hey, that’s uncalled for.

The blond didn’t even hear me. She kept on berating the driver, for what seemed like forever but must have been about three minutes until she got out. She tossed a five dollar bill into the back seat, dragged out her bags, and stalked off.

There was a moment’s silence in the cab and then I leaned forward. I said, as calmly as I could, that I had never seen the blond before in my life, and hoped never to see her again. That I wanted to apologize for her absolutely outrageously unacceptable and rude behavior.

The driver shrugged and gave me a half smile. Takes all kinds, is what she said, and then we had a very civil discussion about bookstores in the city until I got where I was going. I way overtipped, and my hands were shaking.

Ugliness happens every day. It happens to people who are minding their own business, going along living their lifes. Some of them are used to it and handle it with at least outward composure, others have a harder time. This driver struck me as a woman very much comfortable in her skin, and able to weather the storm. So over the years as I’ve thought about this situation, it’s not so much the driver that comes to mind.

It’s the blond. I think about her quite often, especially when I’m writing. When I have to deal with a character who is willfully cruel and hurtful. I can still see her face, and I focus on that when I’m trying to get that kind of irrational fear and hate for a character. I have never written a main character that extreme and I don’t think I could stand to do it — why would I want to climb into that person’s skin for any amount of time? But neither can I only write about more rational, reasonable people.

The blonde business woman has a story, of course. It’s probably an interesting story, if not particularly pleasant. Whatever her story is, there’s no excuse for her behavior. But it might be a way to understand that kind of person, how they think.

I also think of this incident when I have to assert myself publically. When it’s necessary to speak up, and I’m uncomfortable about that. I think about myself in that cab, how shocked I was, and how incapable of acting in the driver’s defense. I have wondered how it might have gone if this had happened in a restaurant with a waitress, if I would have been more able to speak up. I don’t know the answer to that question. I do know that I am more able now, at this age, to confront this kind of bad behavior than I was even ten years ago. Maybe I have the blonde to thank for that, at least in part.

So there’s no simple answer to the question of where character inspiration comes from. A hundred or a thousand different moments over the course of a lifetime. A long gestation, and then a birth which is sometimes amazingly easy (Curiosity just about sprang onto the page in mid sentence).

The more unlikable the character, the more arduous the process.