Out of character

I like to give advice. It’s a tick, like twirling my hair when I’m pensive or standing on one foot when I’m anxious. It’s involuntary. I can’t help but offer help, even if it’s unsolicited and in no way helpful. This is why my siblings stopped asking for my advice (and my father’s advice) some time ago, although that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped giving it (nor has my father).

Not everyone wants to make the same decisions as me, or desires the same outcomes. My siblings and I are individuals, and while I would love my younger sister to move into my sleepy suburb and settle down, that’s not exactly her cup of green tea latte from my local coffee shop (amenities!). Now that I think of it, I can probably pinpoint the exact moment my father realized that I wasn’t an extension of his DNA. (Although we do share the same involuntary furrowed brow, which is the gentleman’s version of resting bitch face. Much preferred.)

Just before high school graduation, after most program application deadlines had passed, I revealed to my dad that I had not applied to an engineering program as planned and submitted solely to journalism school instead. I’m sure this was shocking to him. He was eventually tickled that I would attend the same institution as my older sister, and unsurprised by my leanings towards the arts, but this was the first major decision I made without his knowledge and input, and perhaps the first flex of my I’m-my-own-person muscle.

Everyone needs the freedom to exist as they truly are. This makes our story better. What makes me happy may not make, say, my little sister happy. (This may be an exact quote from a polite but stern email she sent me a few years ago when I sent her a local listing.)

Lately, I find myself keeping this in mind when writing characters. For the longest time, I tossed draft after draft of unconvincing writing because something didn’t really click. It was probably the poorly thought out plot or the terrible dialogue, but it was mostly because of my characters. They were undeveloped. I was putting them in situations that didn’t make sense or ring true. I was writing about them, but I wasn’t getting to know them.

A few years ago I took a writing course while working on what was then imagined to be a book of children’s middle grade fiction. I remember having a chapter dissected by a group of writers (which is akin to having your abdomen dissected by a group of writers) and the most consistent critique was about the characters. Who are they? My protagonist was all over the place, because I was trying to decide who she was. The only character that resonated was a supporting character, a teenage boy. I wrote him well because I knew him. Even though I invented him, I wasn’t trying to invent who he was. I was simply writing about how I knew he would exist in this invented world.

I’ve been working on another book for a while now, and I’m really excited about. I’m excited because I’ve learned a lot since my first efforts. (It stings a bit to just abandon my previous attempt but writing shitty first drafts isn’t a waste of time, it’s a rite of passage.) I’m excited because it’s a great story, set in a beautiful place, and it’s about a dynamic, daring young girl who’s so incredibly fun to write and get to know. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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