Meet the characters

After a very long break – I cannot even remember how long – I’m writing fiction again. I honestly wasn’t planning to, but last October this idea popped into my head while having my jaw fixed at the dental surgeon, and ever since it has been brewing and fermenting and boiling to such an immensity that I could no longer keep the lid on. So last week, almost ready to go to work, I took off my coat again, sat down and started writing.
Since I had gotten up exceptionally early this morning – I only do early and very, very early – I was in time for work anyway. But boy, did hell break loose! I wrote again in the afternoon and in the evening. And the next day, and the next. Cooking was quite an ordeal, as was shopping for groceries, as was driving. After three days I totally remembered why I had stopped writing fiction all those years ago.
No idea how other writers deal with this, but I get totally overwhelmed and consumed by the story I’m writing, or rather the people I am writing about. To the point of exhaustion, really. It’s like pulling a piece of thread and then ending up with a huge ball of yarn. It starts with one basic storyline and a protagonist, who happens to have a wife and three children. So far so good. But before you know it neighbors with muddy boots walk in, children get chickenpox, dogs throw up, letters from France arrive, guest rooms have to be prepared because there’s family coming over for Christmas.
And they are everywhere! In my house, in my bed, in my car, in my fridge, in my head, every hour of the day, demanding their story to be written. How on earth does a writer keep a healthy balance between his own life and the lives that are somehow planted in his mind by this unseen power we call inspiration?
Don’t get me wrong, I really like my characters, I do, honestly. I grow fond of them within hours and then I love them to pieces. I even cry when they die. And I guess they love me too, or at least they are excited by the fact that I am writing their story, which is all very flattering of course. But, as I said, it’s eating me alive. No matter how fast I write, they do their living faster.
This, I believe, is the moment where you should intervene and say: ‘But they are not real. You made them up yourself. The life they are living isn’t actually happening. It is all your fantasy, your imagination.’
Really? It doesn’t feel like that at all. My whole life I have wondered how this inspiration thing works, for it never felt like it was something I was doing, but rather something that is happening to me. As if these stories and plot lines are constantly on the search for empty spaces in people’s heads. Once they find one they quickly creep in and start hatching or nesting or whatever it is stories do in one’s head. In short, to me it never felt like I am making up stories. They just pop in like sailors in a brothel.
I see an old woman with a basket full of vegetables on a market in Spain and there is a story.
I pass a tiny overgrown railway station in the country, and I have a story.
I watch a man with one leg and a scruffy dog begging in the streets and again there is a story.
How very different, and much less demanding I suppose, is writing nonfiction, compared to that. You analyze and comment on data collected either by yourself or others. You express your opinion on a film you saw, a book you read, a concert you visited. You report about a political gathering, a court trial, a sports event you went to. Or you study, compare and synthesize theories into a theory of you own.
No matter how involved we are to the point that it really, personally touches us; no matter going through some pretty shady stages sometimes while processing our material; no matter how frustrating it can be having to redirect our course because of new information, we are, on the whole, in control of what we’re working on. When it comes to the bottom of it, it’s work, and although many of the writer’s guild are quite familiar with burning the midnight oil, it could – I repeat, it could – be done on a nine to five basis.
Whereas my characters aren’t in any way nine to five people. I’m quite sure there are no clocks in the parallel universe where they dwell and live their messy, quirky, endearing lives pretty much the same way we do. So I guess I can’t really blame them for haunting me day and night with their stuff. Like last night, on my way to the bathroom, inspiration whispering in my ear:
Remember to mention the painting.
What painting?
The one over the fireplace at Grandma’s house.
What’s with it?
It’s a hunting scene!
Yeah… so?
The boar has two arrows in his neck and the kid is afraid of it.
…. Okay … I’ll fit that in tomorrow, I promise, I won’t forget. Nice detail by the way.
Now please, please, go to sleep!

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4 Replies to “Meet the characters”

  1. I’am not surprised that your tired with all that is going on in your head. Even without writing we have so much going on in our heads.

  2. Wat vind ik dit leuk! Ik word hier zelf zo blij van. Dit is helemaal jij. Hier moet je zo je ei in kwijt kunnen. Wie jij bent met al je creativiteit. Ik heb hiervan genoten. En ja, het kan je helemaal overnemen. Maar zo de moeite waard als de stroom stroomt.

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