Like many writers, I’m quite introverted. I like quiet. I like a room of my own, a state of low stimulus equilibrium. I’m a listener more than a talker; a watcher more than a doer; risk averse, rather than a thrill seeker (this is an understatement). I don’t have a big personality, I don’t need, nor want a lot of attention. I also present as very even keeled. I may be screaming inside, bouncing off the walls in panic, but I’ll be the one saying, “Let’s keep our heads, let’s think this through, what measures should we take if the worst case comes to pass?” And that’s because my inner child is a catastrophist, while my hard won adult is the salt you throw on the kitchen grease fire (never water, folks).
So, when it comes to writing characters who are not like me – the ones who are impulsive or passionate or volatile or manipulative – they always seem faintly ridiculous to me. I not only want to tell them to get a grip, but I also want them to do so. If they were to comply, however, they would not be my flawed impulsive, passionate, volatile, manipulative characters who make the story interesting. This is where a writing group is so helpful. They’ll examine each character and explore with you why a particular character comes across as inauthentic and come with wonderful ideas to make your character seem whole.
To my surprise, however, these more colorful characters turned out to be less of a problem than one of my protagonists – a ranch foreman, Diego, whom I saw as being the decent center of my story. Readers really didn’t like him – they couldn’t get a handle on him, they mistrusted his motives, they thought he was a wimp (the list goes on). I felt strongly about keeping him, but was flummoxed as to what to do (as I noted in my last blog post for Dead Darlings). So I wrote 10 pages of him telling his back story in first person (very little of which was in the first draft on the novel). In sharing it, listeners (in this case) felt he really came alive. Someone, reflecting on the difference between his first person self and his third person presentation in my book, asked a very insightful question: Whom do you most identify with in your novel? I hadn’t really thought about it because I’d intentionally written an historical novel where none of the characters – a frontiersman, a hacienda owner, his wife, a genizara household servant, a ranch foreman – resembled me in the slightest. But when I stopped to reflect, it was the ranch foreman, my most troublesome character, who was most like me – decent, low drama, ever vigilant, and always seeking to mediate difficult circumstances. This same insightful person said that for many writers, especially those who are very private, the old maxim ‘write what you know’ doesn’t hold, because in doing so you are afraid you’ll reveal too much about yourself. And just the naming of it, that ‘aha’ moment, freed me up considerably and encouraged me to give Diego a chance to be his own person.