If I had to ask one question of all my characters in my stories, it would be this one: What do you think you need to be happy, and why can’t you have it? That is pretty much the entirety of the human experience. Plus it’s the stuff of fiction. As Carrie Fisher said, “No one wants to watch a movie about a mother and daughter who start out liking one another at the beginning of a film and wind up liking each other more at the end.” Still, one of my consistent challenges is that I would like everyone to be happy, including my characters. Unfortunately, they don’t get be happy while I know them. They may have been happy before I met them, and they may yet be happy when we say good-bye, but on my watch they will hopefully know only suffering and uncertainty.
Which requires, of course, that I both feel their pain and not. I must step into their shoes like an actor so that I can speak their lines and know their thoughts as my own. But the minute I feel for them, the minute I begin to believe their sob story about how the world has done them wrong or how the world is against them—I’m lost and the story dies. I must remain ruthlessly pitiless.
Which is actually the highest form of compassion. That last thing you want to do when someone is spinning a woeful tale powerlessness is to agree with this person. But the last thing a person who is spinning a woeful tale of powerlessness usually wants to hear is that they are not powerless and they never have been.
In my life I have argued vociferously for my own despair, laid out point-by-point why I had no choice but to feel the way I did. Somehow, I reasoned, if I could just get one person to admit that I’d had it somewhat worse than everyone else, I would be—if not happy—then tragically justified. It happened once. I had argued and argued my plight until this person broke down and said, “I’m sorry.” And I immediately hated myself. I had argued for nothing, because there was absolutely nothing for me on the other side of that sorry.
Which is why I remain as pitiless as I can with my characters. To love someone is not to know their pain but their strength, and the moment I take pity on my characters for being afraid I lose all sight of their strength, begin to believe their wretched story, and wind up hating not just my novel but myself.
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