• In Other Words

Character Connections: Finding Yourself in the Story

October 18, 2012
Oct 18, 2012
A few years back, I found myself in a small town in Illinois, visiting an elementary school in which every single student, from the kindergartners to the fifth-graders, had read my first novel, THE THING ABOUT GEORGIE. As the librarian shuttled me through the hallways early that morning to prepare for my first presentation, I noticed an amusing trend.

One after the other, the students I passed on their way to their classrooms—children who had clearly been told repeatedly that “The Author” would be visiting their school that very day—stared at me, the stranger in their school carrying her large cup of coffee, and whispered to one another about whether or not I might be Her. And without fail, one by one, each group of students decided that, nope, I wasn’t it. Couldn’t be. Even if I did sort of look like the lady on the back of the book.

Why, you wonder? How could hundreds of children independently come to the same faulty conclusion, based on pretty much zero evidence? Easy: Because Georgie, the main character in my novel, was a dwarf, and I (at 5’10’’ without heels) clearly was not.

This sort of thing happens nearly every time I visit a school to talk about THE THING ABOUT GEORGIE, and it never fails to make me laugh. Because, of course I don’t need to be a dwarf to write about someone (a boy, at that!) with dwarfism. I rely on things like research, and introspection, and my own imagination to make a character very different from myself come to life. As an author, that concept seems very clear.

But as a reader, well, I must admit I often find myself making the same assumptions about authors and their protagonists. Every time I reread THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, I want to believe that Katherine Paterson must have some of Gilly’s stubborn spark in her, because otherwise how could she write the character so brilliantly? And Gary D. Schmidt clearly had a bit of a troubled childhood, and found a teacher who helped turn him around, or how else could OKAY FOR NOW’s Doug Swieteck feel so real? And don’t even get me started on Harper Lee and Scout Finch…

Obviously, I’m aware that these are works of fiction, whose plots and settings and details have been carefully crafted for the sake of good storytelling. And I understand that even in autobiographical novels, such as TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, no fictional character can be an exact representation of the author. Thoughts, feelings, events, and beliefs must all be tweaked and manipulated to work within the larger whole of a protagonist’s story.

But when I’m inside a delicious novel, none of these truths about crafting fiction seem to matter. When I’m reading a story—a really, really good one—and connecting deeply with a character, it feels like there’s absolutely no way the writer could have created someone so real, so affecting, if he didn’t know his subject, well, personally.

As readers, we develop meaningful bonds with our favorite protagonists. We read as the main character—we walk around in his shoes, see the world from her eyes, for those few hundred pages until the story ends. We cheer when our hero achieves a great victory, and swoon when the heroine finds her true love, and weep when our now dear friends receive some injustice. When a character with whom I feel a bond makes a decision that I know will ultimately spell disaster, I am quite literally angry with him. “How could you do that to yourself?” I want to shout through the pages—when perhaps what I really mean is: “How could you do that to me?” One need only poke a head inside the still-raging debate over the romantic choices of Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen to understand that readers—passionate, vocal, occasionally crazed readers—tend not to form opinions about potential love interests based on which matches would be right for the character herself, but rather on their own personal ideals (for the record: Team Jacob, Team Gale, no contest).

As an author, however, I don’t write with that sort of fierce connection to my characters. Oh, I adore them. I find them at turns interesting, frustrating, and downright curious. But I don’t write as them. Even while working on my third novel, UMBRELLA SUMMER—my only book to date inspired by events in my childhood—I never once felt that the protagonist was a representation of me. In that novel, the main character, ten-year-old Annie Richards, has developed a rather extreme hypochondria, and worries in turn about everything from smallpox to gangrene to runaway zoo animals, and at one point even suggests that her best friend’s hamster might have seasonal affective disorder. To put it quite simply, Annie is a worrywart.

I, like Annie, was a bit of a hypochondriac when I was a child. And, like Annie, my hypochondria stemmed from a traumatic experience. When I was nine years old, my older brother suffered severe kidney failure, and spent about a month in the hospital, close to death, until he ultimately recovered. (At this point in the story I always feel the need to let people know that my brother, unlike Annie’s in the novel, survived his illness, and is now a healthy adult.) But my hypochondria took a very different form than Annie’s, as did my path to wellness. And while I was mostly a shy, straight-A type at that age, Annie’s character is much more boisterous, and impetuous than I could ever dream of being. (At one point in the novel, infuriated with her former best friend’s lack of understanding, Annie makes the curious decision to hose down her entire Junior Sunbird troop at their annual Fourth of July car wash fundraiser.) So really, despite our shared experiences, it feels like quite a stretch to say that the character of Annie and I are much of anything alike at all.

However, if a person’s life could be said to have themes, in the way a novel does, Annie and I would share a big one: The realization that grief and worry are no substitute for a life well lived. So in that regard we are extremely similar. So too do the themes of my other protagonists’ stories mesh with mine. Like Kansas and Francine (the dual protagonists of my most recent novel, DOUBLE DOG DARE, who simultaneously battle in a high-stakes dare war and attempt to cope with the divorces of their respective parents), I have struggled to make sense of an occasionally unfair hand I’ve been dealt. And even like Georgie, the ten-year-old dwarf from THE THING ABOUT GEORGIE, I have in my own way felt out of place in the world.

I once had a student ask me, during a school visit, if I ever felt guilty for putting my characters in bad situations. And my answer surprised even me a little: No, not in the slightest. In fact, I like putting my characters in bad situations, because conflict is the root of good story, and we can’t learn anything about a character at all if we don’t see what she’ll do when faced with real challenge. So I don’t need to write a character who would only do the things I would do, or who only holds beliefs I hold, because I already know how that character’s story would turn out (and quite frankly, it would be a fairly dull read). I enjoy exploring new characters, foreign ones, and seeing what they will do and say and think.

Really, it’s only after a story is finished—written, rewritten, edited, copyedited, and published—that I tend to see myself in it. At that point I begin to discern, bit by tiny bit, which aspects of the character were pulled from my own personality, and which struggles, hopes, and worries we share. Because, yes, there is quite a bit of me in every single character I write, good or bad. Girl or boy. Dwarf or hypochondriac. But perhaps the most important skill a writer can have is to blindfold herself to those similarities, and to write from imagination—even if what she is imagining turns out to be nothing more than a different version of herself.

Lisa Graff grew up in a small California ski resort town. She earned a degree at UCLA and went on to receive an MFA in writing for children from the New School in New York. She is the author of THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF BERNETTA WALLFLOWER and THE THING ABOUT GEORGIE, which was named to nine state reading lists. Her most recent novel is DOUBLE DOG DARE.

© 2012 Lisa Graff. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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