Friday, October 21, 2011

Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear

Recently I was challenged to imagine that my hero is dying and to think what I might say to him. It was part of a series of thought-provoking exercises over at the Books & Writers Forum. The exercises were designed to get writers thinking about their characters in new ways. Kill my hero? Imagine him gone?

I couldn’t do it. As my mind roamed the possible ways Nathan Rivers might die and what I, his creator, might say to him before I committed him to eternal darkness, I was seized with grief.

This reaction came as a shock to me and I’m still thinking about it. Namely, I’m concerned that I’m too close to my character. Like the warning stenciled into every car mirror: objects are closer than they appear -- my own little rear-view mirror is mocking me: characters are closer than they appear. They’ve snuck into the very fabric of my being. They dodge my footsteps and shadow me during the day. Is that healthy or somewhat mental? (Okay, we all know writers are a little… crazy.)

The reality of a writer’s life is that we devote hours to shaping our characters. We spend intense stretches of time in which we feel what they feel. We struggle with them, cry with them, rejoice with them. We live with our characters - some of us longer than others. (In my case the bones of my story are 30-odd years old.) Is it any wonder that we become attached to our characters? That we identify with them so easily?

I know I’m not alone with this and I searched the internet to see what others have written about author attachment to characters. (Just to confirm that no, I’m not as nutty as I suspected. And happily, I’m not! Either that, or I’m just in good company.)

Jeff Bennington, a writer of thrillers, has noticed the phenomenon in his own writer's life. He calls it the Law of Attachment. (My disorder has a name even!) The Law of Attachment is this: a reader will relate to the people in a story to the degree that the author has grown attached to those people.

Brilliantly simple. If I don’t feel anything for the people I create, how will the reader ever care?

I’m no longer worried that I can’t kill my hero. My challenge now is to translate my deep feelings for him to the page so that others might feel the same way. And that, my readers, is another blog topic.

How do you feel about your characters? Are they flesh and blood and bone to you? Do you think it's necessary to have the Law of Attachment in effect to have a great story and to reach readers?


  1. I realized that lately, I've been feeling very attached to my characters. I write short stories and try to develop the characters by thinking like them for a day. Each time my story takes a turn for the worst I truly feel for the character. In my opinion, that's what makes a story interesting; It adds a lot of emotion.

  2. By the way, I really like the concept of your blog!
    I recently started my own blog called "The Write Way" check it out at:

  3. Whew! Thank goodness, Susan. I'm not ready to contemplate your Nathan dead either.

    So it's a okay that I'm having the same problem with my MC as I work through those same exercise questions. Laura Grace, who is more like me than I like to admit (wink), has revealed some new experiences yesterday that makes her distinct and different. It's all good. ; )

  4. Oh! I'd never thought of it in quite those terms before. By the Law of Attachment, it seems I *could* make people feel for Klara, who's been taking up head space since 2002. And Deborah, since 1998.
    Can't beat your 30-year relationship with Nathan, though [g]

  5. I could make Jack dead for my plot bunny story because I made him a ghost who still took part in the life of the people who love him. I really wouldn't like to kill any of them. It was bad enough killing the murder victim, because I'd known her for a long time before I realised she had to die.

    I didn't like her, that helped, but I realised I had to make her sympathetic in death or it wouldn't engage the readers. If they didn't care that she'd died it wouldn't make much of a story. Then once I'd done that, I found all these redeeming characteristics to her. Interesting process.

    (And Susan, I'm glad you're not killing off Nathan either.)

  6. Hey Susan,

    You're still chewing over the September X prompts too, huh? [bg]

    Either I'm as crazy as you or we're just...writers. I feel the same way you do -- my characters walk in my shoes as often as I walk in theirs. It's weird and creepy and kind of wonderful.

    I believe in the law of attachment, with one caveat. You can be as attached as you want, but I don't think there should be any sacred cows in writing. If you love your MC so much that you keep him from any real harm, you keep him from situations that will endear him to the reader, too.

    I think that's what Ron was getting at, in a way; love your characters enough to be ruthless with them. Push them up against a wall and see what they do, because when they're at their most desperate, they're also at their most unpredictable, and maybe their most real.

    That said, I am very glad Nathan isn't going anywhere. [g]