When I write, I often develop extremely detailed histories for my characters. I’ve always wanted to understand what makes people act and react the ways that they do, what in their past forms who they are, and my characters are no different. So I create complicated lives for them and their families, and along the way I also acquire compassion for even the most unlikable characters. I begin to feel empathy for them.
This exercise is nothing new for me. I’ve always liked to sit in restaurants and make up convoluted stories about the people dining around me. I do it for fellow airline passengers. I do it for people I’ve never met, and for those I have met but just can’t seem to get a handle on. It’s pretty lame as hobbies go, but most hobbies writers have are pretty lame in comparison to alligator wrestlers and sky divers and bullfighters. We tend to play in our heads. (With the exception of Ernest Hemingway, of course.)
I decided to try out this little exercise on myself, treating Christy Strick as an undiscovered character. Of course most of it is my history, known to me, but then I began to take known facts and turn them upside down. I invented a new father, one who would not run away from the responsibilities of a family with four children under the age of 8. One who loved me from afar though he couldn’t claim me. (This little fantasy would surely make my mother crazy.)
Most of my family contributed without me having to embellish, of course. My mother, who taught me sacrifice and told me that I was special (which I still believe to this day, despite evidence to the contrary.) My maternal grandfather, whom I have mentioned before, who passed along to me his passion for learning, a lifelong curiosity, and a craving for travel as we read his National Geographics and World Book Encyclopedias cover to cover. My paternal grandfather showed me what it is to be a courtly gentleman, a man’s man who smoked pipes and played golf and drank cocktails every evening. And did it looking like an aging movie star. My paternal grandmother who passed on to me a love of art, and beauty in nature, and the importance of good manners. My maternal grandmother, who taught me about duty, and hard work, and determination as she slaved in a blue jean factory to make ends meet. And my great grandfather Bob, who lived to be 99, showed me the dignity that could be found in aging gracefully. My aunts, Marie and Jerry and Carol, who always believed I was special and let me know it. And lastly, my daughters, who are smart and funny and teach me things about myself every day.
Of course these are the good things. I also learned from some of the people in my life to be wary, to not open up or trust too easily.
I think of life as a great big canvas, with people who touch our lives adding paint here and there, layer upon layer of interactions that change the picture constantly, sometimes with just one encounter, one stoke of the brush. Each death, each love affair, each supportive teacher or mean girl, they all add color and depth to the canvas. The only question is whether at the end of that life, the canvas will hold more yellow and blues and greens or more reds and black.
I’m thinking about painting a canvas about the character’s life I am working on right now, a sort of abstraction of life. Maybe it will be the cover of this novel. Maybe no one will ever see it but me. But I’m visual, and I like the idea of making art out of a life. Which is what we do as writers every day on paper. The canvas is just my extension of that.