How my characters saved me


An article about the often strange relationships between an author and his fictional characters.

I’ve heard other authors regard their characters in many ways, usually affectionately. To hear some of them, you would think their characters live inside them as separate personalities, with enough presence to give the author multiple personality disorder. Other times characters are vehicles for authors to explore aspects of themselves or of certain kinds of people the writer finds fascinating. Whatever the case may be, the consensus I’ve gathered from the most successful writers I’ve met so far has been, that their best writing came from when their characters developed voices of their own, when the story was allowed to develop naturally from what these fictional people chose, did and said.

Such was the case for me in writing my first book. What at first was an exciting yet awkward, clumsy experience became pure creative bliss when I truly found my characters, when they were allowed to flourish with their own personalities, histories, wants and needs. When I let them go their own way, even if they made mistakes, acted foolishly, made choices that took them away from the story I had outlined, that’s when the work truly came to life, that’s when I found the greatest sense of expression for myself. It was, and still is, invigorating, liberating, in a way that I’ve only ever experienced similarly when playing music.

It’s easy to say then that fictional characters, regardless of the genre they inhabit, owe their existence and the chance to live, even if that living is not the same as ours, to authors. Authors then are something akin to parents, who either by choice or from some burning, instinctive voices inside begging to be let out, bring to life people, ideas, pure acts of creation.

I’m not about to suggest that fictional characters be regarded necessarily with the same respect we grant to actual living persons, despite arguments you can make such as: “at least a character can’t betray you or hurt or let you down the way a real person can.” Nor do I subscribe to any notion that a character’s voice, their desires, ambitions or goals should take precedence over those of real people. However, what I am building toward is this: what we creators, specifically authors, put out onto the page and into the world, when it is given life and form, it can inspire, it can help people, it can give hope or set an example for someone who perhaps doesn’t have anything virtuous in real life to look up to. That, to me, is powerful, and often underestimated.

My characters, many of them at least, especially in the After Terra series, are expressions of some aspect of myself. The protagonist, Matt Garrison, his struggles have often mirrored my own, and in some disquieting instances, have foreshadowed them. Yet in his turmoil he has found the strength and conviction to stand up for his ideals and become a hero even when the whole universe seemingly stands in his way. Then there are the secondary characters: Jessie, who in part represents my resentment toward the world and all its systems of control, the resentment of not being given a choice as to who I am, where I live, what my identity is. She is also my go-to swear jar. Then there is the silent stoicism of Gunther, a man more at peace communing with machines and computers than with people and their noise. Following them is the salaciousness and unflinching disregard for tradition-for-tradition’s sake that is Obed. And floating in the ether is Lilith, a personification of dark, wispy playfulness and a neatly packaged embodiment of so many of the things I admire about women and their underestimated strength. These people, their adventures and the other colorful souls they have encountered and still will in the series to come, they’ve given me a warm place to escape into when the real world breaks me down.

It’s no secret to anyone really, whether you know me personally or only through online channels, that I am in a rather bleak place. Heartbreak, disappointment and disillusionment are difficult barriers to overcome. Much as they try, and they have helped as much as they can, my friends and family can only do so much to ease the mental and emotional obstacles keeping me from feeling content and happy with life. I know in time, as I break old habits and replace them with healthier ones, as I put myself in new, better surroundings, as I grow in my knowledge and experience, I know things overall will somehow get better. Maybe one day I’ll even be able to love again. But the people and personalities I’ve created, when I am pulled into the darkest corners of my psyche, they remain examples of heroes to me, sources of comfort, of laughter, of overcoming odds that seem impossible. They’ve have helped guide me through a darkness I thought was impenetrable.

This to me, is priceless, and at the risk of sounding a little crazy, in this moment I’d like to think that in some strange way, in return for having a chance to exist, maybe my characters have returned the favor and saved me. Perhaps its silly, perhaps its hokey and overly sentimental, maybe I’m overstating this, that it was really me who saved myself since I did create these people. But I don’t really care. I want to thank them anyway. And I would hope that someday, maybe more “real” people can get to know and be inspired by my creations too.


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