Researching facts is straightforward enough. But imbuing invented characters with a “three-dimensionality” that leads readers to picture them not as cardboard-like cutouts, but as real people? Accomplishing that latter is far more difficult.
I raise the issue because I worked yesterday on part of a chapter that dealt with characters confronting another’s sudden, life-threatening illness. (You would not expect me to reveal whose; and I won’t.) Doing so prompted me to reflect on this. If you write fiction, likely you have your own take.
What might a character blurt out in a moment of emotional turmoil? True, it is possible to research a response, or even to imagine one. However, if you have yourself actually said something for real, or overheard someone else say it, that certainly makes it easier to know what to put in a fictional character’s mouth in a similar situation.Nearly twenty-five years ago – good grief, I can’t believe I just wrote “twenty-five” – my (now late) graduate school advisor had joked with me that every September the students were “age 18,” while over the years he had progressed from being their older brother, to their Dad, to, finally, their grandfather. But he believed that aging process had contributed to making him a better lecturer than he had been in his 20s: he felt that as he had grown older he had also grown increasingly “the wiser” compared to those who were always “age 18.”
I feel now that I am better grasping what he had meant. In that, perhaps the historian and political scientist in me is also bubbling to the surface. Specifically, I’ve been coming to conclude there is no way I really could’ve written Passports, and its sequel, say, two decades ago.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not asserting fiction cannot be written by anything other than old folks. Rather I suppose what I’m finding is that there is sometimes no substitute for (perhaps harsh) personal experience to help you turn your characters into the most believable “people” you can.