Authors. The very word gives me visions of Victor Hugo, portraying his grief of his daughter’s death, his disgust of most politics, down into a rough draft by candlelight in the 1860’s. I imagine Charles Dickens, envisioning scenes of misty graveyards while ink forms into sentences before his hand. Harriet Beecher Stowe, meeting Abraham Lincoln, spreading light on the plight of American slavery. Even Rick Riordan, brushing up on his Greek mythology to create the Percy Jackson series. These writers took the experiences of themselves and others, impressions of stories they’d heard, ideas that spring impulsively to the mind, and remembrances of the people in their lives to create the stories we love.
Did Hugo fall from the mast of a prison ship, in the effort to save another convict’s life? Probably not. But his character’s actions matched that of his own in many other respects, including Jean Valjean’s bequeathing of a fortune to the poor upon his death, an action Hugo did himself on his own death bed.
Then again, that wonderful word Author summons another visual. Has anyone seen Nim’s Island? The movie about the spoiled kid whose dad goes missing, and she lives on the island with the animals, like an overly spunky, aggravating child version of George of the Jungle, minus the Toucan and Gorilla? Anyway, put that annoying plot line aside, and you’ve got Jodie Foster playing an OCD, germ phobic writer, who plasters her hands with Germ-X every chance she gets, will only eat canned Progresso soup, and can’t even set foot outside to get her mail without hyperventilating. Her only true friend? An imaginary man, clad in an Indiana Jones fedora, who also happens to be the star in her best selling Alex Rover book series. Alex frequently visits this writer, giving frank advice, telling her to get out and do something with her life…then, the movie gets irritating again, but that first ten minutes? Pure gold. Why? Because, in a way, I am that writer.
Do I love Germ-X? Yes, sir. Progresso soup? Awesomeness canned. Have I ever been hunted by ethereal creatures in a dark wood, my side dripping with blood, my breath a heavy rasping in my chest? Nope. But I’ve come close.
It’s frightening to be in the underbrush of Texas, a rifle in your hand, tracking the hog you’ve got a weak blood trail on, while what seems like a millions screaming pigs can be heard in the dark nearby. Stories of hunters getting mauled and/or eaten by their tusked quarry flash dimly in your memory, but who cares? You’ve never felt so alive, and the loaded gun is ready at hand. You shine your light through the gloom of the cloudy darkness, listen for the reassuring footsteps of your friend in the night, and push on, determined to find your harvested animal.
Then again, the horses my characters ride so often? I’ve maybe ridden a horse…for like, two weeks of my life? After I fell off the animal I was learning on, I never really got back on, besides an occasional trail ride. The spoiled food my characters eat, their other dining options depleted? I live the cushy life of a kid whose amazing parents provide nutritional food. The taste of mold has never been willingly placed into my mouth, but the point is, I can imagine the desperation it would take to eat such food, because I’ve felt desperation in other situations.
Knowledge for the next scene in a book can be taken from Wikipedia, your local library, even just listening to your grandpa’s stories about him and his friend/enemy, Newty Cline (which, unfortunately for Newty, sounds a lot like “Nude-y” when said out loud.)
The task of writing is a strange, fulfilling mixture of your inner grit, your deepest weaknesses, your imagined fantasies, the things you’ve done, or the things you passionately wish to do. Betrayal, love, loneliness, are very real things–the transferal of those emotions to the character is easy, the portrayal of its realness is difficult. And as horrifying as watching your latest chapter be read by others is, it’s gratifying, knowing you completed another piece of something you love.
If only authors were like the Most Interesting Man in the World. We would live vicariously through ourselves, making our vicarious characters all the more vicarious.
People would hang on our every word…even the prepositions. I totally stole that joke.
*DISCLAIMER: I am merely a fan of Calvin, Hobbs, and Bill Watterson. In no way does Calvin and Hobbs belong to me, and in no universe will this blog post inspire awful truck bumper stickers. My respects to the wit and creativity of Mr. Watterson.*