When I was 7 or 8, my family and I went to visit relatives in Vermont. My cousin, Erin, was caring for a wounded butterfly she kept in a plastic basin under the front porch. She stocked the bin with nature and took the butterfly out for flying practice each day before returning it to the shade. I convinced her the butterfly needed to be out in the sunshine to heal. We went off to play in the wild of rural Vermont, and when we returned hours later, the butterfly was dead, dried by the sun.
I felt awful to think that I ruined something she had spent weeks caring for. She had trusted me, and I had been wrong. I felt this way for almost 20 years. If we ever seemed distant, the butterfly incident permeated my existence, and I was convinced our bond was threatened by how she saw me after it.
About 5 years ago, I asked her about the butterfly.
She had no fucking clue what I was talking about.
The memory of convincing my cousin to do something that resulted in a loss turns out to have been minuscule in the grand sweep of her life. But it was huge in mine.
Lives are interior things. We get out of bed and venture out. And we meet people and shake hands and fall in love and then out, and we take some hearts with us when we fall, dropping things we perhaps should never have possessed in the first place. We smile and engage and laugh and cry and experience and so on and so on. But at the end of the day, we turn inward on ourselves, we close our eyes and try to make sense of the hours we’ve just had. We decide what that smile meant to us. We decide if we’re going to hold on or let go of the things we hold.
And sometimes what we hold onto are things that are huge and clumsy in our grasp but imperceptible to those around us. To me, this is the most interesting part of who we are. And it is the most interesting part of the people writers create too.
My writing is overwhelmingly and unapologetically character-driven. It is true that great stories need a balance between character and plot, but no matter what happens, a character’s response to events is what moves a story.
My MC could get mugged on a sunny afternoon, but it’s his decision to shoot the man or to take him to lunch that drives the story forward. And I’m here to say that these ‘moments’ do not need to be large. They do not need to be hit-you-over-the-head dramatic (though, sure, it’s great if some of them are). What they need to be is important to the character experiencing them.
I just had a phone conversation with my ex-husband. He called me with some sad news and said to me, “I just needed the perspective of someone who is not my family.” He continued talking after that, and I listened because I knew that’s what he needed me to do.
But my interior was clearing space for a newly labeled box.
Someone who is not my family….
We spent almost a decade together. He still works for my father. He will probably never know how something he did not even mean to say is now an oversized burden in my arms. An awkward box of meaning I will carry around and try to throw out, but will most likely drag with me from place to place, until maybe I’m lucky enough to have less heavy things to put on top so that I forget it’s there.
We do not need to burden our characters with moments that happen to them, but with moments that become them. If you look at the boxes that your characters carry, if you read the labels, what would they say?
There are probably some big boxes, simply marked.
Marriage, Divorce, First Child, Death of a Parent.
Most of them, though, are probably smaller in scope, but more personal.
The way she looked away when he reached for her hand
How that man stopped to pick up his dropped phone and handed it back so kindly he knew he could make it through the day
The time they laughed uncontrollably at dad’s funeral because Aunt Grace kept saying “Amen” loudly every time she farted to cover it up
The moment she realized she didn’t love him because of the way he washed her grandmother’s dishes
These moments weigh something. These moments fill the other boxes up, the ones able to be labeled with one or two words. These moments become.
I know I put myself on the page – all writers do – but what the characters carry has to be right for them. It has to be true and real for their experiences, not my own. And so when I go to sleep, I don’t just rummage through my own boxes, but I sift through theirs as well. And of course, as any good piece of literature can tell you, while the labels may be different, the contents are always, always recognizable. And so my characters help me carry my load, and I help them carry theirs. And when people read my words, perhaps they will see something that belongs to them and take it. My load may not be lighter, but it will be shared. My interior life is no less awkward or cluttered, but there’s a little more light to see by because someone else has looked inside and said, yes, I know this place. I carry it with me too.
So writers, what are you carrying? Is it heavy? Go and set it down. On the page. Label it. We will find it, know it, and help you carry.