When I first began writing, as I imagine many writers do, I wanted to tell stories. But that was it. Period. I had in mind a main character, some side characters, a journey. I believed it was my job, as a writer, to tell their story. And, after I told this story to the best of my abilities, I would then move on to the next project and proceed to tell that particular story to the best of my abilities.
It seemed fairly simple. Look and tell. Look and tell. Observe and relay. Observe and relay.
But story telling is much messier than this. Story telling requires much more than this. Story telling requires that we actually dip into the letters on our page, that we muddle around in the sticky black pools of ink and that we tread water along with our characters. Sometimes we are barely surviving. Sometimes we are barely breathing. But, like our characters, if we want to carry out our story to the end, we must keep going.
Because as writers we are inevitably a part of our stories. We are not, of course, actual characters (although that could be an interesting project, I bet!), it is much more subtle than that. We are the filters. Our characters can only see, feel, and hear that which we have felt, seen or heard before.
In short, our characters are limited only by us. This is not to say that you must have lived every detail of your characters' lives (delving into the fantastical is one of writing's greatest joys!), but that the frame of reference for any character - those stumbling through the daily routines of life and those journeying to new and undiscovered places - is life. This life. And so we must live it. And that which we do not know or have not felt, we must learn to see.
And my characters are changing me. I will never become them, but I want to know of them. In a strange way, these make-believe characters are opening my eyes to the real people around me. I am embracing differences, I am drawn to understanding, I am learning to value the beauty and the brokenness of a world that has always existed around me. I am learning to feel.
I know I have a long ways to go. I am humbled now that I once thought, as the author, my job was to distantly tell the stories of my characters. It is not. That is their job. I am merely the vessel by which they speak and, in being open to this, I have made an even greater discovery: sometimes I write my characters, and sometimes my characters write me. Most of the time, they are much better writers.
It is a relationship I never expected to have. This constant interaction between my characters and me. But I love that I cannot deny that it is real - that my characters and they way they are changing me is real - and I hope that this one day carries them into the hearts of the very real people that we do all of this for.
The relationship between author-character-reader complete and never ending. This is my hope. And, thank goodness, my characters are patient with me.