Monday, January 24, 2011

Determining Distance

I got an idea for this post when I saw a status update on Facebook of all things. It seems like a valid issue and so today is getting two posts rather than one.

There is an author I watch on Facebook who is very passionate about her writing. It acts as a catharsis for her personal issues, a therapeutic push through her past and the present of her imaginary friends. I can attest that my characters gain virtual lives of their own the more I write with them, their experiences become close to me and all that. I think every writer who works through a particular story, especially a series, becomes attached to their 'baby(ies)' and knows what this is like.

However, how much attachment is too much?

In my Consecutive Interpreting class today (more sign language) we talked about the proper way of addressing an interpretation. We talked about separating it from the signer and referring to it in neutral terms (talking about the product not the performer). In a way, we were talking about keeping professional distance. Through my writing classes, they talk about writing as a process, a technical art form. Characters are tools to achieve a thematic end. Fiction remains fiction and the creation doesn't take on a life of its own apart from what the reader feels.

With either of these approaches to writing fiction, no matter the genre, there is a risk of either losing your own identity in the work or the work losing its identity because you're not in it. I agree that passion is an integral part of writing, or else why would you write? It certainly isn't the easiest job on earth, and never the most lucrative unless you're extremely lucky. If the characters are alive on the page, if their struggles are a visceral experience, then the story is a success. Everybody knows that. But keeping that professional distance is key to not letting the lines between them and you blur.

When I was younger (yes, middle and high school where hormones are high and everything is big) I lost myself in my characters, used them to cope with my melodrama. Unfortunately, that stunted my growth as an independent entity, that prevented me from being the real, flesh and blood me. Now I know a little better and developing my own voice apart from theirs. I can relate to them all I want, but vicariously living through them just isn't healthy. I had to learn to separate myself and become a "god," guiding the lives of my creations through their trials and tribulations until they come to their natural end. I learn to delight in their hardships, find entertainment in their struggles, knowing in the back of my mind I have absolute control of the outcome. I'm the one with the control, not them.

So, letting the characters lead the story is all well and good, but as Authors/Writers we can't forget we have absolute control of our creations and ourselves. We can delight in torturing our friends for our own entertainment and nothing will happen. They are words on a page, thoughts in a mind, fiction! That is so empowering to me, that I can let my imagination play and let it create all it likes. In the end, the identity of 'maker' is the strongest thing protecting me from my characters and myself. Face it, if something out of Inkheart ever happens, writers/storytellers/authors are the first on the chopping block. So don't give the characters a chance to possess you and get their payback!

If you have had any experiences where it feels like characters are more real than they actually are, please share! What's your perfect balance of distance and vicarious living? Are characters more friends or tools to you? Are stories more art or product?


  1. I don't think any of my characters are so real that the line blurs from me to them. I love my characters, but they are in fact just characters. I've been asked several times to do 'character interviews' (where they ask the character the questions and the characters answer) and I declined. I want people to know and love my characters through reading my books. I want them to live in the imagination of the reader - not through me.

    But maybe other writers do. I don't know...

  2. Its weird actually if you look at things from Jane Austin and Poe, its almost as if those authors lived through their characters and poetry. Jane never married, and Poe was eccentric. It seems older authors did hit a big time high living this way.
    I think there is a kind of separating that comes through submitting and publication because the author knows they will have to eventually move on to another story.

  3. I wrote my second novel while going through a serious depression, and it was true that my story was a great solace to me. However, looking back, all of my characters took on the same depression I had, and because of that - they did nothing in the story. None of them had any clear direction. So yeah, that hindered the story greatly. When I finally came out of the depression, I started a new novel and it really flew. At that point, my MC was able to take on the issues I had dealt with, but because I had moved beyond them, I was able to guide her through it.

    Interesting post. I normally don't ramble in comments...

  4. I love the characters I create, but they are just characters. I've never had a problem with them bluring into my reality. And when a work is done, I can put them behind me. When I had almost finshed my first novel, I was sad to see that it was coming to an end. But then I thought, I'll just have to write another one!