Where characters come from

The protagonist of Secret of the Three Treasures, Tiernay West, is not like any of my other protagonists. When I wrote her, I kept wondering where she’d come from–cocky, confident, determined as she was, with barely a whisper of self-doubt in her, and a voice so strong I heard her talking to me for six months after the book was done.

Then one day a few years ago, I was talking to a writer friend who’d read the first draft of the book. This was some months after lnhammer and I had gotten married, and my family was planning a reception back east for us. “I bet they’re expecting me to dress well for it,” I grumped. “Wear a dress, and makeup even.”

My friend looked at me. “Janni,” she said, “for that one day, you can leave Tiernay home.”

Oh, I thought. Oh.

Because of course, Tiernay was me. Not all of me, not me in any literal way. But sparked by a part of me–the part of me, perhaps, that was cocky, and confident, and more than a little impatient with social norms.

I began looking at my other characters, and was startled to realize they were all me, in one way or another–the underconfident ones, the overconfident ones, the lonely and the unlonely ones, the ones learning to trust their own voices and the ones needing to learn to trust voices besides their own. The villains too, for the most part–some piece of them comes from some small piece of me.

I’ve started trying to use this in a more deliberate way. When I’m writing a character who isn’t quite coming together, I look for something about him or her that I instinctively understand, on a bone deep level. So when I found myself writing a character who believed she was so flawed she deserved to die for it–well, I don’t believe any of us are that flawed. But I dug and I dug, and I realized I did understand the fear of not being good enough that lay behind her belief, even if I didn’t take it to the same extremes. I had my point of connection. I had my story, though it perhaps that one wasn’t a comfortable one to write.

For the current story, I’m thinking maybe the point of connection is the protagonist’s reluctance to let things go gracefully, when the time comes to move on.

There’s always something–sometimes on the surface, sometimes down where one has to dig for it.

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