My step-daughter recently told me that she felt guilty for making up stories about people that she sees on the street. Her actual words were, "I know it's wrong, but I like to see sad people, because I make up stories about them."
She's twelve, and a very sweet, intelligent girl, so I knew she wasn't
meaning that she likes people to be sad, but that she enjoys the act of making
up the “why” they’re sad. She has participated in the last three
NaNoWriMo events for kids, so I wasn't surprised to hear she did this.
But when she expressed her concern that she should feel bad about that, I
quickly assured her that doing so is part and parcel of being a writer.
I told her that knowing a character’s back story is crucial to being a
successful author. We need to know our
characters inside and out in order for them to jump off the page, like they were
actually made of flesh and blood. I even
assured her that I do it myself all the time, and cited some examples.
I understand her guilt, though. There are so many societal rules that
would make an activity like that seem cruel and mean:
Don't lie/make up stories - This one is the biggest one to overcome,
especially for a child. "Don't Lie" was ingrained in my head so
much growing up that, if I tell even a white lie in my adulthood, I ruminate about it for
days, wondering why I told the lie in the first place and scolding myself for doing so.
Don’t stare at people – I’m not
sure why this one is such a taboo, or where in our adolescence it becomes so. If you watch toddlers, they’re staring at
people all the time. They take in the
new person/people in their field of view, and are fascinated. So, why isn’t that “allowed” as we get
older? Is it because the other people
are afraid we’re judging them? If I wear
a sign that says “I’m not judging. I’m a
writer and want to absorb your nuances,” would I be allowed to stare? Probably not.
I’d probably get sued by people who didn’t want me “absorbing” their “nuances.”
Don’t steal another’s likeness – We
writers have to be so careful about describing people in our books, for fear
that a girlfriend would get angry with us for writing about her propensity to
date loser men, or that we described another friend’s baldness in such a way as
to make him appear to be one of the said “losers.” That’s why you’ll hear so many authors say their
characters are an “amalgamation” of people they’ve met over time, in any
interview that asks that question. The
hard part is, there’s probably at least one person out there who embodies even
the characters that we truly make up out of thin air.
I’m sure there are other “rules” that we break, as writers, but I can’t
think of them right now. It might be taboo to break them, but doing so helps us be good at what we do . . . so long as we make sure we're rebelling in our fictional worlds only.
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