In writing, it’s commonly said that a writer invests a piece of his or herself in their work when they make it. It also is mentioned that you can tell a writer’s best works just by noticing which pages seem to be a window into the writer’s own soul.
It’s also said that writers are bat-shit-insane, so is it really all that good when the reader gets to peer into our souls?
When I hear about these things, I am reminded of a story I had written and then mothballed long before I ever got published for the first time. In it, I had a character – a woman, for those curious – that was the single most iconic punching bag I had ever conceptualized.
To say that I treated her poorly would be doing her a disservice. I took that character, from the age of 7, and made her life an inescapable, living hell all the way up till I put a bullet through her chest. Long, long time readers will know exactly what character I’m talking about.
Her background was the greatest of tragedies I have ever written. Her mother died from cancer when she was seven, her father became an abusive alcoholic, ect.
It all then culminated when it was showcased that she’d been sexually assaulted on her 15th birthday by her father.
So daddy gets arrested and thrown in jail, and the girl gets sent to a foster home and gets free rounds of psychiatric care. Too late though, the damage had already been done. Her eggs, while not quite scrambled, were most certainly cracked.
A number of years passed, and our young woman had made some progress in getting her life back in order. Then she found out that her dad was slated to get out of prison early, so she intended to meet him when he walked out the doors. She also intended to have a knife in hand when she met him.
Only problem? Her dad got shanked in the showers a few days before his release. This leaves our young woman even further distraught, since she couldn’t get the revenge she wanted for what he did to her.
Now I won’t go into any further details for reasons I’ll talk about in a moment, but you get the point: this character suffered an incomparable nightmare of a life.
After I wrote her backstory, I sat back in my chair and just stared at my screen. My heart felt like it fell into my stomach. I was looking at the screen in a sense of wonder; had someone else written this and it wound up on my screen, or was this really me?
I felt horror at what I had written in the name of storytelling, as if I myself had done the deed to this person. That they were no more real than a child’s make believe friend gave me little comfort, I had inflicted this pain and torment upon this person with my own hands.
Afterwards, when the story got away from me, I mothballed it. I told myself I would rewrite it when I got better at my craft, so that I could do it justice.
Years later, I’m eyeballing this story again with the intent to rewrite it. And this traumatized and victimized character? She gets to go through her hell all over again. Why? Not because I enjoy visiting that dark place in my mind again, of that I can assure you. No, it’s because I love to tell a story, and hers was one that stuck with most people that read it.
So yeah, are you really sure you want a glimpse inside my soul?
Great post, I agree totally with the piece of yourself that goes in a story (I compared it to giving blood on my blog). I truly believe that in order to write credible dialogues, you have to be able to project yourself in your characters’ skins (since you can’t walk in their shoes ) and somehow experience their emotional turmoil in order to express how they feel. Emotional toll? You bet. Bat-shit-insane is also very appropriate.
Thank you, Steve. ‘Tis true that most writers have to invest themselves into a character in order to flesh them out and make them believable. Sometimes, however, you can find those masters of the craft that can create such a character without any of themselves. When we do invest ourselves into such characters, we risk feeling the blow back of our own actions against that character. We tether ourselves to them, sometimes forcing us to sink a little when we shove them in the pool.