I still have a copy—the ONLY copy—of the first ‘novel’ I ever wrote. I use the single quotes because, while it definitely has the length of a novel, the amount of work it would require to polish it up and actually let it see the light of day is astronomically huge. Thousands of stars will be born and die before that happens. The idea of Throwback Thursday got me to thinking about that novel. It was titled Belles and Beaux, and it was the attempt of a fifteen-year-old trapped in the middle of nowhere, without the ability to leave a small town of barely 600 people, to make sense of life and his place in it.
The protagonist was an adult me. He was sure of himself. He had a plan for life, he knew what he wanted, and he was well on his way to getting it. I had always been told to write what I knew, and while I’m certain now that I didn’t know what that meant then, I went about doing just that.
We all know how the life of a teenager is constant turmoil. High school is a nightmare if you’re not the popular kid. Parents just don’t get it. Siblings are so annoying—especially the youngest one who can cry on command and can twist words better than the greatest liar in the universe. So, writing what I knew, they all went into the novel. Family members became characters. Situations I dealt with on a daily basis became situations that my protagonist dealt with. Except, he did it on a much grander, more adult scale than I did.
The result of all of this was a nightmare ride that culminated in a body count that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be proud of.
Now that I’m an adult—honestly!—I still look at my characters the same way, but I have a better perspective on my own thoughts and feelings. Relationships aren’t as volatile as they were before, and if they are, I can get away from them. The monster youngest brother is now a good friend who comes to me for advice. And now I get to be the adult who just doesn’t get it.
As authors, we must use that wealth of experience, thought, emotion, and imagination to bring to life characters that aren’t just angsty teens wrapped in the flesh of an adult. Or, worse yet, a cardboard cutout of what a character should be. Write a character you’d want to read about. Write a character you want to meet. And if you happen to throw just a little bit of yourself into the mix, where’s the harm in that?
Remember what you were experiencing when you were driving your parents insane? Put those thoughts and feelings into the character. Probably the most well-known example of this would be Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. He defined angsty teen for a generation—if not more.
Remember what it felt like to lose your first pet? If not, how would you feel if the beloved pet you have now died RIGHT NOW? What would you feel? What would you think? Could you get out of bed in the morning? Would you be able to talk on the phone? I have to admit that when I want to write emotional scenes, I imagine that my beloved dog, Dax, has died. Let me tell you, that conjures up some emotion that can be poured into a scene, a character, and give it life.
In my novel Ride the Train, one of the main antagonists, Esau, does something unspeakable, something that I could never do in a million years. The scene that serves as a turning point in his relationship with the protagonist, Alex, did not exist in the rough draft. I skirted the issue as far as I could. Why? Because I could not imagine myself doing that to someone. So, when I finally bit the bullet and followed the advice of my critique group, I imagined what I would feel if I was Alex, and I was experiencing that. I thought about all the times I had been hurt in other ways. The relationships that started one way but ended horribly because of one deed. (Writing this, I can feel that emotion welling up inside me, and it’s been over a year since I wrote that scene.)
You owe it to your characters to make them complete. One of the best ways to do this is to know them, to know yourself. Give them life, like a mother birthing her child. They are part of you, and you are part of them. Listen to them and give them the benefit of your experiences, your wisdom, your emotions (good and bad). If you do that, I guarantee that people will notice, and they will fall in love with your characters.