“Your characters are always people I feel like I know.”
It was a simple comment from a reader last week at the Golden Crown convention, and one I really appreciated. We went on to discuss how I draw on real life and I’ve been mulling over the reader’s parting comment — that I must have interesting friends and family to have so much material to work with.
I do have interesting friends, but one of the aspects of creating characters in fiction is that they are not meant to be real, even the girl-next-door type. Their lives are compressed so that all the exciting, important moments happen during their waking hours. Their dreams, when they have them, are always meaningful. All the ironic things that happen to them are usually amusing, or growth experiences. Their best friend is home when she needs to be, too. Most importantly in creating and writing a character like that, they only have intriguing reflections. It’s the part of fiction about leaving out the boring bits that makes the characters real and impossible all at once.
Take the lime green panties. Lime green panties – every woman has a metaphorical pair. Most women, okay, maybe some women, but I know it’s not just me. You buy the three pack and two of the colors you really like. The third color is, well, for me, lime green. So I acquired a pair of lime green panties (actually boy briefs, but it doesn’t scan as well) somewhat against my will. And I thought, well, there’s a pair I’ll make sure to wear on the days when my theoretical fertility is most present. I’ll end up bleaching the crotch and washing them a zillion times and wear them out in short order, while the colors I like don’t have to go through all that.
The lime green panties won’t die. And I think sometimes about why lime green fabric is so freaking durable and pretty purples and blues fade and shred. One of life’s little ironies. Some people might find my mulling over the Irony of the LGPs somewhat childish and not entirely productive. Except I’m a writer and thinking is my work. (It’s a cool job.) Nowhere is it written that all thoughts must be deep.
Anyway, I can blow an entire year’s worth of interesting thoughts in one chapter of a book, which could literally be one day in a character’s life. That means I have to sponge up other people’s interesting thoughts. Fortunately, there are lots of other people. Some of them are even friends. Being nice people, they don’t seem to mind when I sponge them. Rather, sponge off them, not sponge them off. Isn’t English a funny, odd language?
In more professional terms, using universal experience in intimate detail is one way to heighten the connection between a reader and a character. Someday the Irony of the LPGs might show up in a character’s frustration of daily life, though it could also be the Reality of Dented Volvo Passenger Doors (Car Pool) or Alliterative Lesbian Couples are Everywhere (All the Wrong Places), Rules for Dyke Poker (Maybe Next Time), Menstrual Cramps Are Not Foreplay (Paperback Romance) or even I’m a Sexy Dancer If Only My Thighs Hadn’t Fallen Asleep (Warming Trend).
So thank you to my interesting friends and family, and to those of my readers I’ve met and don’t mind that I’m noticing your quirks and ironies, thoughtful observations and filing them away until year’s later, with some kneading, pummeling, salt and pepper they can be one of the hundreds of little touches that make a fictional character seem like your neighbor.
Most recently, for all her angst and tragic upbringing, it was those touches that made CJ of The Kiss that Counted a likable woman. That’s my way of saying that being voted the Ann Bannon Popular Fiction Award for TKtC is a reflection of my wonderful readers and all they’ve given me over the years. My success is a reflection of their support and loyalty and I am thankful every day for it.