Monday, August 08, 2022

How Do You Shape A Character Who's Had Experiences You Haven't?

Fiction involves a mix of experience, research, and imagination, with the first two both grounding and boosting the third. And if you’re familiar with the endnotes of my books, the photos I post of the places I visit for research, and my Mistakes page (because despite all my efforts, I sometimes fall short), you know I work hard in the service of accuracy and realism.

When I teach writing, I always suggest building characters on a foundation of what humans have in common, with what’s different or unique about the individual in question used more like a spice than like a fundamental ingredient. Of course differences are critical, but they tend to act on what we already have in common. Too much emphasis on differences and not enough appreciation of shared humanity can result in characters feeling two-dimensional or otherwise unrealistic and not compelling.

Some of my characters are more like me than others, and the more differences, the more I need to inform my imagination with research. It can be a lot of work, but I always feel the results are worth it. Some of that affirmation comes from within, but sometimes it’s delivered from outside. Here’s an example of the latter—from Chris Brainerd, who took the trouble to offer some thoughts about my Graveyard of Memories paraplegic character Sayaka and who gave me permission to post it here. Sayaka and I have a lot of differences. But I think starting with everything I know about humans, and shaping and sculpting that based on my research about the specifics, paid off.

Thank you Cameron for suggesting a character in a wheelchair and for helping me get the details right. I think Sayaka is incomparably richer for it, and her romance with Rain more poignant. And thank you Chris for the email below. I’m proud of my my Mistakes page (journalists might consider employing something similar), but it’s good to get feedback that doesn’t belong there, too.

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Hi Barry,

I’ve been on bedrest since November, with not a whole lot to keep myself busy. Fortunately, I stumbled across Rain Fall on a streaming service and that led me to looking up the character and realizing there is a series of books. For a couple months now, I’ve been caught up in every book I can get. I just finished Graveyard of Memories, and it made me want to reach out.

I’m in a wheelchair and the character Sayaka really surprised me. I’m also a guy, so the parts about sex as a paraplegic woman I can’t comment on (haha), but damn! You nailed life in a chair. What I particularly found impressive was John trying to find common ground with Sayaka. Seeing her as any other person and doing his best to make sure he’d thought about how to treat her and get her around. And to make it more realistic, you made him miss things she had to teach him.

And then, Sayaka relating (and achieving) her dreams. Not wanting to be stuck in one place and knowing she could do more. I felt you were either writing from experience or getting great advice from a wheelchair user. I was surprised and impressed that you pulled that off with just internet research.

I wish Sayaka could be in further books, but I’m just glad you didn't kill her off!

Anyway, just wanted to let you know how your books are helping me, and again, praise your tactful approach to disabilities.

And as a proofreader and editor, I’d also say whoever you have doing these tasks is amazing. Your prose and dialogue are tight! I love it all.

Have a great day,

Chris Brainerd

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