Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I will never kill you in a novel.

This month's Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog question comes from Deb, who asked: "How do your pets/kids/plants (something you take care of) influence your writing? Do they help you, or distract you? Do you include them in your stories?"

Laura's answer is here, and Lydia's is here. Deb is up next week! As for me ...

First, let me get this out of the way. I don't put people I know in stories. Not family members, not friends, not colleagues, not clients. I've never even considered it, and it has to do with why I write. See, some of us write to express ourselves. Some of us write to process what we've been through. Some of us write because our heads are full of stories just waiting to be told.

I write to escape.

When I write, I am not here. I'm gone, lost in that story, dwelling within my characters. I tune everything out and go to that protected place in my head. When I am under the most stress, when I am under the most pressure, when I feel like climbing the walls--that's when my daily word count goes up (should I mention that I wrote over eight thousand words on Monday?).

That kind of escape would be hard to achieve if I took all the people I know with me. It's not that I don't love them or care about them; quite the opposite. It's just that I'm one of the most seriously introverted people you'll ever meet, and I need that time inside myself to charge up.

However ... part of Deb's question was whether something or someone I take care of influences my writing. The answer to that is yes. The people I care for, both personally and professionally, absolutely influence my writing.

They've taught me to ask a very important question: what's it like to be you?

I spend a lot of my work time, and a great deal of my at-home time, thinking about the possible answers to this question. To come up with the answer, you kind of have to shed yourself and go wear someone else's skin ... metaphorically speaking, of course (those of you who've read some of my manuscripts might be wondering).

I've learned to ponder this question whenever I butt heads with someone, whenever I'm trying to figure out why someone is behaving in a way that's hurting both herself and all the people around her, whenever I'm trying to understand someone's next move or how he might react to something I'm doing.

I've come to the realization that this question--what's it like to be you?--is incredibly useful. And not just for interpersonal interactions. For character development, too!  And I truly believe that whatever ability I have to crawl inside a character's head comes from the experiences I've had with the people I care for. I mean, if I bear some responsibility to a person, some power to change things for her, then I need to think about what it's like to see the world through her eyes. I'm grateful to every person who's been patient with me as I tried to figure that out.

How about you? How would you answer Deb's question? Do the things or people you take care of influence your writing? How?


  1. I do use people I've encountered in my writing, but only to the point of copying someone's mannerisms because they're the perfect model for a character. And only acquaintances -- and only for the minor characters. I don't think a teacher I once worked with 5 years ago is every going to read my book and say, "Hey, this character is my doppelganger!"

    However, it has been pointed out to me that most of my male romantic leads share some personality traits with my husband. Guess that's kind of natural, huh? I mean, I know what I like.

  2. Like you, most of my characters erupt from my imagination, although I suspect my subconscious is a chef, and each character is a stew: simmering bits and pieces of real people combined to create a person who is "real" enough for me to write for/about them. I'm not Taylor Swift, though---putting anyone and everyone I know in a story. LOL Although it's an interesting thought and might prove cathartic.

  3. This was a great post! Yes, my family influences me a lot ... but only in the motivational sense. In terms of actual storylines or characters...I tend to find inspiration in watching strangers behavior. Ooh, that makes me sound weird:) I mean how people fight, talk, interact - especially teens.

  4. Yes and no. None of my characters are people I know. Like you, Sarah, that wouldn't help me escape while writing. I might borrow aspects of people I know for my characters, but that's all.

    My husband has an annoying habit of trying to make everything he bakes super healthy (which has resulted in some epic fails). I've used that in a character. But that's the only thing she has in common with my hubby. :)

  5. I write to escape too :) So I don't usually put people I know in stories for the exact same reason. (Well, okay, in the first story I wrote, I did kill off a guy from real life who used to be a HORRIBLE boyfriend to my best friend. It was kind of therapeutic.)

    I do take names, however. Last names most of all, because I have *so* much trouble coming up with ones I like on my own. And I people watch a lot, to pick up different sorts of gestures/speech patterns. But even if I didn't write to escape, I still don't think I'd put the people I care for into my novels because I put my characters through such hell, I'd hate to think it was happening to someone in my life. It's hard enough to do the things to my IMAGINARY characters :)

  6. I write to express (and release) emotions...mostly my own, but it's nice to get in the head of someone I know every now and then. I'm not sure how I'd do if my characters weren't based on what I know or someone I know. I'll have to give that a try!

    I've enjoyed your blog and am your newest follower.

  7. > what's it like to be you?

    That's a brilliant question, and one I don't ask often enough. Great post!

  8. Every character I've ever written is as least partly based on some aspect of some real person. They may be a patchwork of many people, but the only way I can know characters is because I've known people.

    That being said, I don't directly put people I know into my stories. Unless they're memoir.

  9. I'm an escape artist too! LOL.

    Great post, Sarah!

  10. i love this concept of "what's it like to be you."

    that's just a great way to think when dealing with people in general. and absolutely needs to be foremost when delving into characters.

    and of course the people who we interact with influence our writing, because they influence who we are. how we feel about "issues" or "attitudes" of whatever. biases we don't realize we have until someone points it out in our work, or biases we intentionally inflict on our characters. our characters wouldn't feel real if we went through life untouched by anyone else, unless perhaps if we're writing about robots or something.

    i love this post, and how well you explained your writing escapism, and the recharging alone time provides us introverts.

    and i love how you explained how UNDERSTANDING others influences your understanding of your characters without mirroring your characters after individuals.

    i've plucked a mannerism from here and there, a philosophical outlook for this villain, a noticed selfishness for that one... etc.

    i'm rambling again.

    well, hi! anyway! have a lovely day!

  11. Everything seems to influence my writing. I try to pay attention to the world.

  12. I love your answer because I feel very similarly. I don't use people I know either, but it's our experiences that teach us how to empathize.

  13. Great strategy! This must really help you get into your character's head.

    Nice post!

  14. I'm a total escapist too. No real people in my work. Ever.

  15. This is fantastic and such a therapist answer, I'm cracking up. I don't write my peeps into books either because too much sad stuff happens in my books. No one wants to be that person:)
    Your development of characters must be truly amazing. I can't wait to read your writing Sarah.

  16. Great question. I'd have to say yes, but not directly, as in I don't write about them, per se. However, I recently put a cat into my revisions. I needed a simple interactive element to show the protagonist's character early on. Could the fact that my own cat died a few months ago have anything to do with this? hmmmm.

  17. I don't use family members either. I might borrow an expression or a mannerism. I certainly borrow feelings from my own life. I wouldn't say I write to escape like you do, but it's more about me than the people I know. Does that makes sense?

  18. Love your post title! I've been more influenced by the places I've lived and people from my distant past, but I couldn't do this writing thing without my awesome family. Even my little boys are supportive - they ask questions about the books I'm writing and keep track of my progress.