Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cassy’s Corner- When We are The Character

Creating our characters takes time and thought. We each has our own approach. Some writers start with a story line and then “find” the people who will act out the plot, bringing it all to life. Others hone their characters- the quirks, the color of their hair, habits, occupations, love lives, pets and the gun-packing grandmother- only to then craft the story that will wrap it all together. Most of us are somewhere in between.

Yesterday I finished a book that has been living with me for three days. It was a fast read but an emotional one. Susannah Cahalan is the main character in her own story of a disease that stole her identity. She has meticulously recreated a full month of loss. As a reporter for a major New York newspaper she has the skills to piece together a chunk of her life that is still missing. Using video clips, interviews, journal entries of her parents and as many sources she can find, Cahalan attempts to discover the story of the wild and deranged woman, the one she cannot recognize, who stars as the main character in this moving story.

Cahalan doesn’t have the luxury of deciding what the oddities of her protagonist might be or how others chose to see her. Rather, she has to take the material presented to her and reconstruct a life that she, the author, cannot remember or in anyway relate to. She is, in a sense, writing a form of historical fiction. The story threads are in part facts derived from medical reports and the videos recorded in her hospital rooms. Coupled with these are the personal accounts of those who stayed with her throughout the terror she experienced- a full month or more she is unable to remember.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness is a moving and chilling portrayal of one young woman’s account of a horrific illness. Thank goodness it has a happy ending. I write about it here not so much as a plug for the book, but as the beginning of a conversation about the characters in our stories. We knit imaginary people together from the bits and pieces of those around us combined with pure imagination. Cahalan had to fuse a reality she could not remember with her own vague recollections to form the main character of her story.

I stand in awe of her accomplishment. I won’t see the genesis of my work the same again.


Lindsay said...

I usually start to develop my main characters before I start writing. Then, within the first chapter the reader gets an idea about who they are.
As I go along I'll add more to them so the reader is always wondering what they will be like in thend

Cassy Pickard said...

Sounds great, Lindsay. I try and develop my before I start writing as well. I was very taken with the book I mentioned and how the concept of character development differed with her experience.