I find it a fascinating concept to sort, even after nearly forty years of writing fiction. The question of how characters are brought to seeming life is never fully answered, partly because the process changes from writer to writer and story to story and partly because it remains somewhat mysterious, even for the one writing the fiction.
Let me extend the discussion into the young-adult novel I’m working on right now, Blue-Eyed Wolf. A fourteen-year-old girl, Angie, stands at the center of this story set in 1967 in a small town on the edge of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area in northern Minnesota.
The story is built around two issues, an older brother who enlists and goes off to fight in Vietnam and the destruction of the wolves in Minnesota. Both issues impact Angie deeply. And both come out of my own convictions, convictions about the senselessness and immorality of war, all war, and about the myriad ways we destroy our natural world.
Angie, however, is not a stand-in for themes that could be more efficiently discussed in an essay. She is created out of emotional substance, my emotional substance.
Angie struggles with feeling abandoned, something which shows up at the center of every one of my stories, so obviously it has some deep—if somewhat hidden—meaning in my own life.
But abandonment—and longing for connection—aren’t the whole of Angie. She seeks religious/spiritual answers to the questions life poses for her, and that is something I sought passionately as a girl and continue to seek.
Angie also hates being fourteen and not yet having meaningful opinions on important topics—such as the war—that the adults around her argue about. I grew up in a home where conversation and argument—rational argument, but nonetheless argument—were indistinguishable from one another. A vigorous defending of ideas was essential to survival. And there I was, too young even to know what to argue about! And so I slip right inside Angie’s frustration.
Thus both my present searching and my long-ago dilemmas shape themselves into my character and, if I’m working well, bring her to life.
Did I start out writing Blue-Eyed Wolf by saying to myself, “I’m going to write about abandonment again?” Of course not. Such a mechanical decision would result in a mechanical story. Rather I started out by feeling Angie’s dilemma. And because I could feel it, I knew it was mine to write.
That’s the way stories work.