My Characters’ Bad Behavior

There I was, writing along, and I came upon a stumbling block.  This character, a woman I had created in my own mind, was not behaving as I thought she should.  How could this be, I asked myself.  Characters in novels do not behave in certain ways.  They come alive off the page as the author imagines them.  They are not flesh and blood people and they do not have whims and wills of their own.

I am an experienced writer.  I have written short stories, essays, and magazine articles and I keep a weekly blog religiously, so writing, as well as potential writer’s block, is not a new phenomenon to me.  But this was a different problem. I am not accustomed to accusatory characters in my writing, especially when they are accusatory toward me.

The character, whose name is Jess, is a working mom.  She is a trader with a big bank and she has two sons who are eight and six.  Her husband is a lawyer.  The family, like mine, is an expat family in Tokyo. (Hey, everyone says to write what you know!)  But Jess is different than most other women I know or consider because she loves her job to distraction.  She can’t see how her work and her devotion to it are hurting her husband and sons.  She doesn’t want to see it.  And I’ve realized, as I’m moving forward with writing a chapter in my book devoted to Jess, that she might not ever see it or ever really change.  I, as the author, will have to deal with the consequences of my character’s inability to change.  This is not usual for me: I cannot control this woman.

My biggest problem, though, is that I do not like Jess.  This is another first for me – normally I like my characters and give them traits I admire, or at least I can garner a healthy respect for them.  Jess is not one of these characters.

Another problem is that Jess is forcing me to examine my own life and my own priorities.  I do a lot of teaching and I do a lot of writing.  I belong to a book group, and a writing group, and I am a board member of our local Jewish Community Center.  I have two wonderful children who are generally happy and healthy, and they deserve the very best that I, as their mother, can give them.  My husband is an attorney with a large, American law firm, and he requires support from his wife, as well.  So I am stretched pretty thin, as you can see here.

I have been struggling with Jess for the better part of two weeks.  I wake up thinking about her, and I went to sleep thinking about her.  What is she doing? Her husband is going to put his foot down at some point, isn’t he?  What about those poor little kids of hers?  But doesn’t she deserve to do the work she truly loves if it brings her fulfillment?

Then, at 5:45am on Sunday morning, I realized that it is okay for me, the writer, to follow Jess, the character.  Sometimes there are things in life that cannot be controlled, and in this case, one of those things is my character.  I am not Jess, and I do not have to struggle the way she does.  I can be grateful for my well-lived and busy life and the busy-ness does not have to reflect on my family if I don’t let it.

What brought about this epiphany of sorts? I’m still uncertain, but it might have to do with the fact that my family was all asleep in their beds and happy after we had spent a fun Saturday night together.  Maybe it was just the stress of the writing group meeting planned for Monday and I had to get something out to them to read.  I am not sure. I do know, however, that I spent about fifteen minutes in bed at 5:45 thinking about Jess and her priorities, and then was able to go into the computer room to write a quick 1000 words of Jess’s story.

Not all characters are like-able and perhaps it is a good thing if my characters provoke this type of reflection.  For now, I plan to look at Jess and let her tell me where her story is going.  It is okay if the story does not have a neatly tied-up, happy ending.  What matters is that I work on the story and write it to the best of my ability and that I stay engaged with my real life and the people who need me in it.

Sometimes we have to give up control.  Even as a writer, I have to give up control in order to learn and grow.  I have learned a lot of lessons with Jess.  I can’t wait for the rest of the world to meet her, too.  Back to the writing board.