The other day I sat down with a friend who’s a healthcare professional, and picked her brain about various medical conditions I might inflict on a character. I knew how the event needed to play out in my plot. Certain types of symptoms were preferable to others, and it needed to take a specific amount of time for them to develope. The ensuing crisis should require a specific level of intervention. There were certain types of medical procedures I wanted to come into play. And I needed to leave my character in limbo for a specific amount of time.
As my friend ticked through different possibilities, I thought about how well each scenario would meet my fictional needs.
“There could be abdominal pain,” she said.
“Good.” I wrote it down.
“Nausea or vomiting.”
Anyone listening in from a nearby table would have found the whole thing pretty strange. I know I did.
“This is exactly what I was looking for!” I told my friend when we had gotten it figured out. All sorts of pieces were coming together. The story I had been hoping for seemed real and possible. I was so happy and grateful.
“I’m glad this is going to happen to a fictional character, and not one of my real patients,” my friend said with a smile.
I readily agreed. But her comment got me thinking.
At this point in the project, I have a pretty good grip on the logistics of my plot. I know how the medical scenario I’ve been imagining will affect my main character. And I’m beginning to understand how the imaginary crisis will play into my book’s broader themes. But beyond the basic facts my friend helped me figure out, I haven’t considered the situation from the point of view of my poor, afflicted character. I don’t even feel especially bad for her.
Why? For starters, she isn’t really real to me yet. More importantly – at this point, I don’t even especially like her.
This isn’t some random reaction. Most of the characters in this story aren’t really real to me yet. I have barely started writing it. But I like the other characters just fine. I even have a soft spot for the one I know has acted really badly. And I know that another character, whom my main character can’t stand, is actually a perfectly decent human being, even though I understand completely what my main character has against her. And I really, really love my main character, even though she has all sorts of bad qualities.
If I don’t love my characters, how can I write well about them? And if I don’t care about a character’s suffering, how can I expect readers to care? I’m pretty sure that once I really start writing about this one holdout character, the one I don’t like, she’ll start to flesh out for me. But first I need a point of entry. And I need to remove what’s standing in my way. So what is that? As I sat there with my friend, I figured it out.
The original kernel of this story occurred to me a while back, at a time when I was feeling hurt and angry. A certain someone needed to be punished, and I was going to do just that, through fiction. By now I have gotten (mostly) over being pissed off in real life. And the make-believe world of my story has grown and developed far beyond the real-life situation that spawned it. But my original associations with the character who set the whole thing off have persisted.
When I confessed this to my friend (who, besides working in healthcare, has also done some writing, herself), she very sensibly suggested that I pick someone I do like, and keep that person in mind as I write about the character in question.
So that’s my next task. I’ll be scouting around, holding a sort of secret casting call, considering real-world characters to graft onto the one I already have in mind. The result should be a richer, more complex character. One I can think — and write — about more sympathetically. One the reader can better identify with. Or at least better understand.
And who knows what might happen if I were to imagine the worst-case scenario I would inflict on my enemy afflicting my friend? Besides making better fiction, it might turn out to be just what the doctor ordered.