As you can tell from my last post, I had a rough weekend. The work I do in my day job is a little hard on the psyche. Working on issues of social justice means facing up to the ugliest, most tragic, and sometimes nastiest sides of life. A bad mood can throw off my writing--not just my will to write, but the feelings and thoughts I put into my characters. And I've been thinking about "character" lately, in reference to real people and fictional ones. I've heard that in a work of fiction, you only need one sympathetic character to feel emotionally connected to the story. And this week, I've found that it's true in real life, too. Just one friendly face can make a whole world of ugliness seem redeemable.
In my work on social issues, I've been dealing with people who are fearful and aggressive. There is so much bigotry, hatred, willful ignorance, and violence going on in this country right now that I'm ashamed and saddened by it. I go to the bookstore and read about medieval times and tell myself, "Well, at least things aren't that bad!" But it doesn't make me feel much better. When I've just interacted with a nasty woman who basically told another woman that her asthmatic son could die for all she cared because she didn't want her tax rate to go up (even though it wouldn't) to pay for health reform, telling myself, "Well, at least having a preexisting condition that means you have to pay out of pocket for a $200 inhaler every month isn't as bad as being cut to pieces by Vikings" doesn't really cheer me up. I feel uneasy setting the bar QUITE so low. And it isn't just the injustices in our nation that upset me so much--it's the nastiness and vitriol coming from the Fox News hatertainment set that really bring me down. A tragedy is a tragedy, but violence feels worse than an accident. And watching people gloat over misfortune makes it that much more difficult.
These are the kinds of antagonists I don't want to deal with, in real life or in my current work of fiction. Sleeping Beauty and the Beast of Vepreskastel has no villains who are main characters. The truly nasty people are nameless, faceless hordes. My four main characters will all be imperfect, though basically good, people who bounce off each other as they navigate a complex world and struggle with what it means to love and to be right.
In real life, I can't avoid the nasties. To do good in this world means to face the darkness. But I'm asking myself, What is the meaning of strength? What is a strong character? How can I write strong characters if I have trouble staying strong myself? I don't think aggression means strength. In fact, usually the opposite is true. A person who goes through life with teeth bared like a cornered animal seems fearful and lacking in real power.
Sometimes we need an example to remind us. This week, I had a phone call that changed my whole attitude.
Meet my friend "Jade." I hadn't spoken to Jade in quite awhile, so it was great to get back in touch with her. Jade is like a ray of freaking sunshine that can zap the murkiest fog. And she's no Pollyanna full of empty smiles. Jade is a serious badass hailing from Flint, who has done dangerous photojournalism, covered stories about gory and mysterious deaths and Nazis and cults, worked for local justice in many different ways, and can often be spotted riding a very cute bicycle in a very cute outfit with a metal pipe sticking out of her bag--just in case. Jade has been face-to-face with the ugliest of uglies, the nastiest of nasties, and yet she goes through life brave, unafraid, and full of love and generosity of spirit.
I've decided to call her Jade because the stone jade is prized for its strength and its beauty, and because of this bit of mythology courtesy of gemstone.org: "this gem is regarded as a symbol of the good, the beautiful and the precious. It embodies the Confucian virtues of wisdom, justice, compassion, modesty and courage, yet it also symbolises the female-erotic." My friend is just plain beautiful, inside and out, and she inspires me. If this messy world can produce people like her, it can't be all bad.
Another great thing about finding one sympathetic character in life is that they tend to bring friends! And there is nothing more life-affirming than surrounding oneself with good, warm-hearted people who share your values and pleasures and taste in beer.
This weekend, Mr. G and I are planning to spend some long overdue time with friends we love. Good friends are like vitamins for the soul, and interaction with real, wise and lively people is excellent nourishment for writers trying to craft likable, well-rounded, strong fictional characters.
Unless, of course, we are too hungover to type the next day.
Thanks for making my week, Jade! <3