I am willing to go Dark.
As I head to teach at #NESCBWI19, I thought it would be a good idea to add a post to my blog about writing . . . and what it sometimes costs us as people to tell the story.
The other day, I had a fascinating conversation with another writer. We were going through her manuscript and there was a scene she’d written that just wasn’t working for some reason. I asked the most basic question that I ask of myself all the time: “Are you being true to your character?”
As she started peeling back the layers of the character she’d built, she realized that what she’d written – what she wanted the character to do – was not in line with the character’s core personality. It wasn’t in line with the character’s history, her way of thinking, and her self-esteem. The scene was corrected to follow what the character would do, rather than what the author WANTED the character to do, and the issue was fixed.
When a storyteller truly writes, they should yield control of the story to the characters they’ve created. The reason is simple: no one can ever control the emotions, reactions, and train-of-thought of another person. You can try to cheer someone up, convince them of a certain path to take, or beg them to feel better about themselves, but there is no way to actually impact what sits in their mind. If you can’t control a real person, what makes you think you can control a fictional one written to be real?
I’ve always yielded control of a story to my characters – I’m merely the one to transcribe their lives. I’m also the meddlesome twist of fate that throws obstacles in their path, but I don’t control their reaction. Ever. This is maddening in some ways – plotting finer points is basically impossible when you follow a character down a rabbit hole. What I will say, however, is that the end result is a detailed, twisted, page-turner of a novel with rich, unforgettable characters.
I’ve never had a problem slipping into the skin of a character – even the bad ones, even the ones on their death beds. I never had a problem . . . until I started writing The Coffin Crew. It was the first time my Forensic Psychology background failed me. It was the first time I could NOT understand a character’s thought process. It was the first time I started calling people and asking “HOW? How could someone do this?”
No one could go down the rabbit hole and help me slide into the skin of a Nazi scientist who worked under Josef Mengele. I could not, NOT understand how so many MANY people in WWII simply turned off any shred of humanity. It was beyond me.
I am still struggling to bring this Nazi character to life on the page. Trying to become him, makes my own heart seize and my blood run cold. I’m mentally exhausted by this book. I’m so done, DONE wanting to read a single page more of the true evil that swept through humanity in the 1930s and 1940s.
People lost their SOULS in WWII.
People became the embodiment of evil in WWII.
I can never forget what I’ve learned in researching WWII. I try to keep my sanity in check while reading, but I want to rage and cry at the same time. You can’t be unaffected by the horrors of the Holocaust and it’s so far beyond what you thought it was. It’s so much more horrific than you could ever imagine.
I won’t let these stories of survival and loss, bravery and selflessness, be forgotten. I won’t let evil slip by with the passage of time, and I won’t let the Greatest Generation simply be viewed as elderly people slumped over in their wheelchairs. I am willing to carry what I’ve learned and burrow down into the mind of a Nazi to portray him in haunting accuracy on the page. I am willing to read the documents and be forever changed by what I’ve learned.
I’m willing to write it, so that it can NEVER be forgotten, especially by the current generation.
I am willing to go terribly, terribly dark and I’m willing to show the beauty in hope and courage.
I’m willing to tell this story.
What story are you willing to tell?