When my daughter was ten or eleven, she used to say from time to time, “Mom, write a book about me. You could call it Heavens to Elisabeth.”
“Beth-Alison,” I’d say, “I can’t write a book about you. I don’t know you well enough.”
“Oh, Mom,” she’d say, in utter disgust, and that was the end of the discussion.
But the truth is I didn’t know her well enough to use her as the perceiving character in one of my stories—and still don’t—though I know her about as well as most mothers know their daughters. Inevitably, though, I know her only from the outside. If I’m going to create a character on the page, one through whose eyes I view the world, I have to approach from the inside.
There is only one person I’ve ever known from the inside, and that, of course, is myself. And so every character I have ever climbed inside of to tell a story is, on some level, me.
The reality, however, because we are all so complex, is that only scraps and pieces of my psyche—of the longing I talked about last week—ever reach the page. Nonetheless, every main character starts with me. The most basic question every writer asks when approaching a story is “What does my character want?” and it is in the depths of my own longing that I find the answer to that question.
This is true even when the character I am passing through to reach my story is an animal . . . such as the dog, Buddy, in Little Dog, Lost.
With Buddy I did what I rarely do when I’m creating human characters. I began with a real dog. I don’t mind borrowing from a dog for a very simple reason. Dogs can’t read.
I don’t have to worry about Buddy—or Ruby as she was called in real life—feeling invaded. Nor could she tell me that I didn’t get her right on the page.
And the truth is, actually, that I began not so much with Ruby—she has an interesting story, but I didn’t use any of it—but rather with her ears. Ruby had “airplane ears.” So does Buddy in Little Dog, Lost. And Ruby’s ears create a pretty good metaphor for the way I draw all my characters. One small bit stands in for a much more complex whole.
That’s Ruby in the photo at the beginning of this piece, the dog whose ears I borrowed for Little Dog, Lost.
And here’s the artist’s, Jennifer Bell’s, rendition of Buddy, who ultimately earns the name Ruby in the story.
Those ears helped me fly through the entire story.
I’ll talk about the insides next time.