Friday, February 29, 2008

Saying Goodbye to Your Characters

I'm not positive, but I think I wrote a main character's final scene last night. It snuck up, and didn't even occur to me until this morning. Reflecting on it now, as then, I don't feel jubilant or mournful, just pensive. This may be because I'm not sure she's gone yet. Or maybe it's because she's fictional and so really, in the grand scheme, isn't so important to me.

But I wonder if saying goodbye to characters isn't a special sort of transition, wherein processing the loss is slow and subtle. Because I've never parted with a character from my novel before, I have no emotional frame of reference. Tell a small child that someone close to them has gone, for good, they rarely burst into tears. Instead they may ask a clarifying question or two, then simply return to the task that was interrupted --- watching television, or playing with toys --- now just a little more detached.

J.K. Rowling cried upon completing one of the final chapters in the last Harry Potter book, likewise having to say goodbye certain characters. My own character has not died but she is leaving, leaving the bounds of my fictional world and the characters in it. In doing so, she's also leaving me.

Most of my characters are extrapolations of people I know in life, composites of two, maybe three personalities at most. My particular fondness for this character --- the director of an after-school program, and my main character's boss --- developed because she is more a product of my imagination than any other in the book. I remember the moment I met her: her stalwart frame, raised on a booster step behind the podium, with her newborn infant strapped to her back, inspiring a school auditorium full of parents with her quirky charisma, wooing them, owning them. I hadn't realized she was so cunning, such a force to be reckoned with.

I'd had my conception of her mapped out on paper and in my brain for over a year. Some of my intentions were honest, some less so. On the whole it seemed to suit my needs. But characters come to life in their own time, in their own way. Chapter after chapter, numerous actions and quotations, and still your character remains a construction (another of my characters for instance, an elusive fly named Simon, has yet to come alive for me, and is a persistent concern).

As the writer the moment of birth is difficult to forecast, but it's quite discernible. Sometimes a mere utterance or gesture becomes the character's first breath. To capture the essence of this moment in three words: "There you are." From this point onward, writing her is decidedly easier, because she guides her own path. As author you're reduced from god to director, a role that is far more manageable.

Today it dawns on me that just as a character is born in her own time, she may leave in her own time as well.

If your time is now, Meg, then I say goodbye to you. The other characters may have their misgivings, but you and I have shared some powerful moments. You have made me, and continue to make me, very happy.


J. Rosemary Moss said...

What a lovely and poignant post. I was captivated, especially since I just went through the same ordeal with a character of mine. I wasn't sure if it was goodbye or not--I just knew that I didn't want it to be! Good luck figuring out where you stand with Meg..and I'm glad you can appreciate her whatever happens!

Andy said...

Jim -

By any chance, does your character resemble that Human Bonding professor from college? Her name escapes me at the moment, and perhaps for the best (to protect her identity from your despicable readers), but I think you had her too, and something about your description made me think of her. Actually, now in the midst of this, I'm almost positive you had her, and at the same time I took the class, and that this may be yet another time where we met and yet didn't remember (Bethanie would've been the link)... Now that I think of it, I think you sat on the floor in the back of the amphitheatre near me during the final.

That reminds me: what did you get for #12?

Cecily R said...

Oh, how I want to create characters that I can bond with, say hello and goodbye to and cry over!! At this point though, any characters that I may have stored in my head just refuse to come out. Someday someday!