I’ll admit it, some of my favorite people are fictional. Harper Lee’s Scout, Robert Heinlein’s Friday, Michael Chabon’s Detective Landsman, Peter Hoeg’s Smilla, Fannie Flagg’s Idgie, and so on. Characters have been my constant companions my whole life, first just other writers’ and then mixed in with my own. I write for many reasons, but being able to spend so much time with the people I create is one of the big ones. I feel an intense closeness with my characters, whether they’re like me or not. It may come as no surprise, but I have a particular soft spot for Mitch from The Mathematics of Change, her sadness, anger, determination, and deep, almost feral love. Carol, the yin to Mitch’s yang, is one of my favorites as well, even though she drives me nuts. She’s so verbal and energetic and self-conscious.
I’m always writing or revising something, and my latest work in progress started as a story that wouldn’t stay a story. Three of my novels (two that are not yet published or complete) were like that: some somewhat intangible idea that kept spilling outside the boundaries of 5000 words or that had people I fell in love with. This new book features a lesbian couple–one white and one Indian–and I knew I was in for yet another multiple-year ride when I kept reading over their dialog, tickled with how they talked to each other. This is the strange thing about writing, how these people come through my brain but are not me, sometimes not remotely me. When things go well, they say and do things that are wildly surprising.
I spend a lot of my writing time thinking about what makes them … them. Their motivations and fears and idiosyncrasies. The way they’ve been marked by their own histories (that I’ve also made up, so that’s weird). Until I understand them better than they do themselves, my writing won’t approach the level of integrity it needs to be successful. And what’s successful? That you get drawn inside their skins and live their life with them, looking through their eyes, thinking with their brains, unmoored from your current life for at least a few minutes. Maybe you’ll even fall in love a little.