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.

23 Replies to “where characters originate, and the mangled mathematician”

  1. That’s fascinating Sara. Sometimes you (as in the universal you) comes across a character that’s so extreme, even though they are real, putting them in a book unbalances the characterisation (I’m not explaining this very well but it falls into the category of truth being stranger than fiction).

    I also hate those situations when you are literally lost for words becasue the behavior is so apalling and you can’t believe it’s happening.

    In a way I’d love to know her story and in another I wish she’d drop off the edge of the world.

  2. I agree that the more likeable the character the easier they are to put on paper. Some of the easiest writing I’ve done started with a likeable character. I wonder is that then a good starting point for a aspiring writer? …maybe if a writer is stuck at some point, they could go back to that likeable character to get back into the flow.
    That woman you shared a cab with oviously has some issues. Though it shames me alil to admit it, I can’t help but admire the…(probably won’t express this right)openess of her outburst. I want to make it clear I don’t agree with her. We’ve all bin in the position where we would have liked to say somthing total nasty to someone, a sort of exclamation point to a thought we are trying to get across. Though I think most of us realize that it would be hurtful in the end.
    On the other end of the spectrum,”the HATERS”,this group has always repulsed and fascinated me. How could otherwise normal intelligent people be so passionly rascist? I’ve known a few people over the years who were rascist and what boggles my mind is the before and after mindset I had of these people. Before I knew, I respected them, enjoyed there company called them friends then the bomb drops and i want spit in there faces. I think they have like a dr.jeckel and mr hyde thing goin on,split personality maybe? A need to rally behind something? Like I said it boggles my mind.

  3. I can relate to your description of the encounter with the vitriolic blonde. That rush of adrenaline when you’re trying to figure out whether to fight or flee doesn’t happen often in the way I live my life as an adult, but it’s very similar to how I feel when I hear people fighting for no good reason. Particularly family members. And I think it’s also wrapped up for me in the loss of the image I had built up of the people in my mind. As Bruce says, the shock of the change is mindblowing. The more I’ve created feelings and a relationship with the person, the harsher the change. Probably in part because I wonder how it’s possible to feel sympathy with someone one second, and disgust the next. But it says more about where your head is at than where the other person’s is at. Perhaps to be an effective writer of characters, you need to remain open to observing all forms of human behaviour, and remaining open like that is a vulnerable position in all ways. Another insight into the writerly mind. Another risk? Just what is the stress level of the writing profession anyway? Hah. I guess you’d have to count the writing phase as well as dealing with the publication phase…

  4. Hi! I was surfing the net and came across your blog. I can understand your discomfort in that cab – I’ve been in similar situations before and I’m ashamed to admit that each time I’ve been too shocked, too paralysed to speak up. There will always be nasty people and in a way, I prefer those who are upfront about it (like the blonde) rather than the closet bigots. At least with the blonde, you know where you stand with her.

    I can’t say I’ve had any specific experience that has influenced the characters in my books, but I agree with you about “A hundred or a thousand different moments over the course of a lifetime.”. I think it applies not just to characters, but also to the plots and themes that appear in anything you write.

    ps: I hope your Mathematician gets well soon. And that part of the spine is called the cervix because ‘cervix’ is Latin for ‘neck’. The female part of the anatomy is called the same thing because it’s the neck of the womb. So it’s actually funnier to think that something down there would be called the same as something up there. :-)

  5. Keziah — you reminded me of a Neil Gaiman quote: Rule one of reading other people’s stories is that whenever you say ‘well that’s not convincing’ the author tells you that’s the bit that wasn’t made up. This is because real life is under no obligation to be convincing.

    Bruce — that’s an interesting idea, about appealing to a likeable character when the going is rough. Maybe I’ll try writing a letter to curiosity, ask her opinion on some things.

    Pam — stress level for writers, hmmmm. Logic tells me that it’s no more or less stressful than any other profession based on creative output. But my gut tells me otherwise.

    Dawn — glad you found us. I agree that for me as a writer, the nasty blonde was useful in her willingness to let it all out. But then I wasn’t on the receiving end of her tirade.

    And you’re absolutely right, everything you write comes from the same well. Character or plot or dialog. I think though that characterization is the most complex part of the process, both in practical and theoretical terms.

  6. I think of this as one of many variations on road rage, that is, the angry person vents vitriolic spleen either at another driver, at a waiter/waitress, cab driver, and so forth, knowing there will be no repercussions. Chicken-livered, mean, and other demeaning words to that jerk!

  7. Yea! Elizabeth’s mother and father and what happened to make Mathilde go back to England. Daniel and what he makes of his life after his arm was injured. Lily and her family with Simon Ballentine. That Jemima (she has to turn up, right?). And maybe happiness for Hannah and for Ethan, and to see what kind of man Gabriel turns out. (And how Bears is doing, and Liam’s daughter, and….) But Nathaniel and Elizabeth old, and Curiosity elderly!

    Can that all fit into one book!? “To pull it all together,” as Curiosity says, seems a daunting prospect. But I am so excited….!

  8. Oh – take care. You make it clear that writing is hard. Just take care of yourself.

    And something impish makes me add: doesn’t sound like the end of things, sounds like another book. A prequel. Then the end of things. Exciting!

  9. Wow Sara~
    You had better do some listening and less tapping for a while. We’ll all wait patiently. But from the tone in her voice you had better do it her way……like Pam says…..a prequel….I LOVE those!


  10. I’ll admit…I’m very worried about the “sorrow” part. I do realize that life isn’t all happiness, but I do hope that there is more happiness than sorrow for this family.

  11. WOW! -And I just got done waiting for Queen of Swords… If this won’t make me learn patience, nothing will.

  12. Rosina,
    You are wonderful! Like many people Curiosity is one of my favourites, what a gutsy strong woman! You can’t help but love her! The next few years are going to drag waiting for this final book. lol

  13. I hope one of the secrets we learn is what Curiosity means when she says, “If there be lions in the way…”

    (My apologies if that is not absolutely correct, but I am at work and don’t have my books with me!)

  14. oh that was fun. almost like another chapter to tide us over. can you do more of these? please? pretty please with sugar on top?

  15. Thank you for posting this Rosina. Personally this one post has given me a clearer notion of your writing process than any of your other posts on the subject. It must be exhausting at times, mentally an physically, being drawn one way and another by all the characters. How do you ever escape if you want to?

    If the task seems overwhelming it doesn’t bother me if it can’t all be done at once. A good story is worth the wait. If you think there is only one more book I know it will be a wonderful book. But if another (and another?) book should come later, 20 years or more, I’ll still be glad, regardless of the wait.
    I imagine it’s hard enough to tell one person’s story in one book (look how many books there are on Nelson Mandela for example), so a whole extended family’s story isn’t going to happen in 4 or 5. Right?

  16. Thanks so much for sharing. I’m a little frightened by what Curiosity was saying though, and so relieved that 10 more years and she’s still alive.

    I so want to know what’s happened to everyone and here’s a thought, since there is so much to tell, maybe two more books?!

    That conversation felt real to me, I can only imagine how it felt for you. It’s beautiful the way they know about “you”, almost as if you’re a secret the town knows about but never discusses (or maybe it’s just Curiosity who knows about you, nah, the others do to).

    Thanks Rosina, that was loads of fun.

  17. Talk about wetting the appetite!! So much to tell, secrets, changes, revisiting of friends and foe and by the sounds of it – new people to meet too.

    Can’t wait!

  18. Rosina – I read your blog and the Wilderness Novels religiously, but have never commented. Just wanted to say that I can’t wait to hear Curiosity’s story, and that I love to read your ongoing story as a writer. Posts like this remind me that just because writing is a struggle doesn’t mean that what I am writing will come out so much trash. I mean, it still might, but evidently the good writers (like yourself) struggle, too. That is comforting. Like Curiosity is challenging and comforting at the same time. Thanks for sharing with us.

  19. I’m glad that y’all find my conversations with myself interesting. You do realize that voices in my head telling me to do things would be considered — questionable — by many.

    Writers. Gotta love ’em.

    Annie: keep at it. It’s always hard, but when it works it’s worth it.

  20. Today I finished listening to Queen of Swords audiobook. I am officially in mourning. This little conversation was just what I needed to ease my grief. ;)

    I truly love Curiosity. It is wonderful to hear more from her. I’m a little fearful about the “sorrow” comment and I’m hoping that there will be more happinness than sorrow for all of our beloved characters.

    Now I’m off to search your site to see when the next book is expected. I don’t know how patient I can be! :P

  21. Excuse me for being so impatient, I understand you’re a busy woman but when are we going to get some more of those character sketches? I really enjoy seeing them with your eyes so to speak…

  22. Ang: do you get the monthly newsletter? Because you would like it, I think.

    I’ll be sending it out by email tomorrow.

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