Characters As Friends


I’m in the midst of editing a novel – my own, Shakespeare Loves Monsoon, the sequel to an earlier book – whose most recent draft was several months ago. I gave it to three people (one friend, two grown children) to review and note anything at all – from typos to character flaws to where they started yawning – absolutely free rein to help me improve it.

So I’ve been toiling at my original, noting every typo and “?”, and reaching the point where the suggestions are more general. With regard to the protagonist, “perhaps more tension in interviews similar to tension with men” is a really helpful piece of advice. So I’m working it. Oh, yes.

Here’s the fascinating thing: I’ve been away from SLM for months. In that time I’ve begun another novel, totally different, wholly distinct characters. This new book is first-person; the one I’m editing, third. The new one has a late 20-something protagonist; SLM’s is in her 40s.

When you write, it’s a given that you empathize with your characters. Some authors profess to love theirs. All of theirs. I’m guessing they mean in the Quaker sense of recognizing the light (the God-ness) in every character – although Diana Gabaldon, prolific author of the Outlander series, has written total sadists for whom she alarmingly professes some understanding, saying that her characters are part and parcel of who she is.

To me, that goes too far. It’s like empathizing with the men who currently traffic in human beings. Making money off others’ enslavement, pain and despair? Sorry, no empathy there. A quick guilty verdict and execution would be more apt.

Nor am I talking about writing one’s own hero. Perhaps the best-known example of that is Lord Peter Wimsey, the creation of Dorothy L. Sayers beginning in 1923. Sayers’s character is clearly her ideal – she invests him with more virtues and skills than Austen’s Mr. Knightley, and even creates a mystery writer, Harriet Vane, for him to fall in love with. Similar, much?

But for other characters, the ones who are mildly flawed? That’s a grayer area, and a richer one.

My two protagonists (Rachel and Annie) both express some of my traits, positive and negative, and to the extent I accept myself, yes, I like them. They can also be ornery (“No, I want to do that instead!”) and therefore people to wrestle with. Or – more often – they come up with words or behaviors that are not yet me, but which I admire and wish to grow . . . so they’re people to imitate.

Life imitating art? Or life finding a way (shades of Jurassic Park!) to express itself as possibility?

In the widely-read Eat Pray Love, author Liz Gilbert ponders a similar puzzle toward the end of her book. Recalling the misery of years past, and the power of her own response to pain (in a notebook, she’d blurt her own agony, confusion and despair, and then – in a sense – reply to herself, writing out a calm and loving answer), she wondered if that mature, serene self was pulling her younger self forward to a better place.

Perhaps our characters are us in disguise, or they’re our literary children. Maybe, though, they’re imaginary people assigned by our unconscious to challenge us, urge us to grow, and comfort us with their presence when we’re lonely or distracted.

Maybe they’re our friends.

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