By Julie Brickman, Spalding School of Writing Fiction Faculty
Years ago, when I was writing my first novel, I got into a new relationship. For the first few weeks, it colonized my mind and I parsed every word, gesture and intuition for meaning. One night, deep in dreamland, I got a phone call. It was Kendra Quillan, my protagonist. “Where are you?” she said, and hung up.
I was stunned. The aware mind in which I took such pride had heard not a murmur. It was merely a tool to give page life to a character. She had an existence separate from me and my consciousness, but she needed me to write to actualize her on the page. After all, I’d already started to create her and she didn’t want to be left half-formed.
“Your guy’s a transitory attachment,” she said, “but I’m forever.”
Right she was. The guy is stuffed in the closet of remote memory, but she remains vivid.
Kendra and I had a long conversation to work this out. How much attention did she need to flourish? It wasn’t as massive as I feared. She didn’t care if the guy hung around; she just wanted her own slice of mental real estate; she wanted to matter.
“I need to know that you’re going to show up,” she said. “This coming and going as you please and leaving me in the dark recesses isn’t good for me.”
I wasn’t quite sure what she meant.
“I start to wither.”
“Disappear,” she said. “Die.”
She was a figment: an imaginative life form created by me. Dying was not her option. I was incredulous and rather miffed as I pointed this out.
“I’m not so different from anyone else, you know. Relationships need nurturance. Without it, they die.”
She waited for long silent moments, listening to the race of my thoughts and the rhythm of my heartbeats, then whispered, “Yes, without regular attention from you, I will die.”
“I don’t care if it’s only on Sundays or during the waxing phases of the moon,” she said. “I just need to know I can count on your presence every day or week or fortnight. That way I can keep simmering away in your subconscious and turn up to meet you.”
This made sense to me, in an id-fueled kind of way. I needed her as much as she needed me.
I went back to the book and dropped the guy. Kendra was right about him. He didn’t have a shred of the moxie she did.
Soon after I returned to writing, I hit a serious plot snag. For two long weeks, I stared at the blank screen, moseying along any plot line that occurred to me. None of them worked.
It’s done, I thought. Maybe the material was drier than an old bouquet. Maybe I’d stayed away too long and Kendra had gone.
It turned out that wasn’t the case. But it was close. The scene on the horizon was as ugly and brutal as they come, and I didn’t want to imagine it or write it. But eventually I did, and it was the turning point of the plot and the protagonist’s life. Like most of us, she had to go to nether to get to wonder.
Kendra and I had a fraught relationship. As one critic put it, “She’s not very likeable.” I didn’t agree, but the truth was, as a traumatized person, her journey to individuality knocked around some dark and nasty places. Until she accepted title to the ugly fragments of memory she’d shucked along the way, she had a rather distant relationship with herself. Not until the last page of the book could she even refer to herself as “I.” Then her likeability blossomed like a cactus flower. It’s implicit in the ending, but it isn’t on the page.
The point is, she stayed as she promised, and writing her was a rich and fascinating journey. Two independent presses simultaneously accepted that first, flawed book, and I got to choose between large and ideological or small and literary. All the writers I admired on the Canadian scene had started minor and literary, publishing three or four books with small presses before they launched into the stratospheric sales of the Canadian bestseller: around 4,000 books.
The chance to imagine multifaceted human beings on or off the page skims over boundaries of time, place and skin, expanding the capacity to love across myriad dimensions. That’s what we share as writers. The sweat and pleasure of creation: What life could be more privileged than that?
Recently, I have embarked on a new writing project. It’s as private as a new love affair and just as tender to explore. But it also requires the concentration of attention, parsing of detail, and will to ride the chaotic tangle of wounds and joys as any new relationship, exactly as Kendra requested when her dream doppelganger called me up.
Characters are real relationships. They are alive in our heads and on our pages. They have flesh, bones, friendships, encounters, crises, feelings; they yearn and change; they love and hate; sometimes they vote or run for office or journey to a dangerous place. During all this, they need nurturance and an accurate mirror — someone who sees exactly who they are and reflects it back in rich, kind words – in order to become fully who they are.
Right now, I’m lucky enough to be enamored with my characters. For the first time, the subject picked me. Avada Kedavra, I fell in love.
Julie Brickman is author of the story collection Two Deserts and the novel What Birds Can Only Whisper. Her novella The Galapagos Story appeared in FailBetter as a two-part serial in May 2019.