I’ve really noticed a trend in my journals: my scribbled thoughts and characters are overwhelmingly in unpleasant situations. However, there is usually some kind of grace to be found in their suffering. Consider this quote by Flannery O’Connor, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.” Unlike Flannery’s characters, my characters usually embrace that grace offered to them, I think. But, as O’Connor says, my characters’ stories are not hopeless or brutal because of the situations. They are simply people in pain that have a silver lining around them. And I can’t change that pain. Let me explain –
I’m not a sadist. I don’t enjoy hurting characters. Yes, there are some characters I work to create: they come out of an emotion or a thought or an idea. However, some come out of thin air, from a place outside of me. They are like some floating concept looking for someone to share them and I am a camera showing what I see or feel. These characters are more than my imagination. They have stories, and by changing those stories I would only be lying. I write their stories how I feel they are and I’m obligated to not change them.
The snippet of a story I found in one of my journals that prompted this essay is about an old man. He is finishing the hardwood flooring project in his home that he and his wife started. She has since died. The old man is alone and remembering the parts of life that the floor is linked to. It’s heartbreaking. I want to save the man. I want to write him a wife and a family, but I can’t. He exists now at the later part of his life. The story came to me here at the end. I cannot change its past. And I hate that. I feel for this man. I grieve for this man. But he is what he is.
Maybe that sounds weird to you; maybe you can’t understand why or how I can’t change this story. I wouldn’t blame you. It’s complicated for me too. That’s how it is though. I can’t take this man’s pain away. Though, he is hopeful. He is sad, yes, but he is also proud to have the floor finished. To have completed a long project that has lasted through the bulk of his life. I find a lot of characters like this: broken but alive and hopeful. And this makes them real. It is their imperfections, their pain, their faults, that allow us to believe them. We’re all broken. A perfect character is fanciful but never realistic. My characters are hurt, yes, but I’m no sadist, honest. I’m simply a realist with a pen. Me and Flannery’s characters might not be the happiest people you’ll ever find, but they’re enlightening and, hopefully, inspiring. And maybe you can associate with these characters’ hurts and find hope within yourself too. It’s the realest you’ll ever feel.