Find a Friend

The distance between a page of research and a page in your novel can be bridged when you approach the material the right way. That is: from the inside out. If you have two characters that are acting like the statues in their distant town squares, that’s because you haven’t thought through the implications of the information you’re using. 

Let’s say your protagonist visits Nathan Hale the night before he is to be hung, giving the only life he had. You have found out from your research that the two characters went to college together. Yet the story reads like those two inhabit separate planets. Nathan Hale lives in that history book you read, and your protagonist, well, he’s still fuzzy and goggle-eyed, emerging from the shell after you’ve given him life.

During the American Revolution, most people attended college between the ages of 15 and 18. Today’s high school ages, in other words. Nathan Hale was famous for not being able to keep his trap shut. So if your protagonist knew him, you can practice transference. Did you know a guy in high school like that? Could he have been one of your gang in high school? (Note: “she” works just as well.) What stories do you remember about high school that involved that tongue-flapping friend? Write down that story. Could it be retold back in the era when the only pollution we had to worry about was horse dung? Sure, it can. Social progress of the human species, in the sphere where characters live, moves as slow as (sorry) molasses. 

That process of transference works with all sorts of relationships, including your most important ones of all. In this case, you don’t have to worry about being constrained by the real-life models for your characters. Your brother didn’t live 200 years ago. Your mother doesn’t wear one of those fetching bonnets of yore. You’re mining your memory to infuse life in a fictional relationship that exists only as dry bones of research. That’s why you’re having so much trouble making them real friends.

Exercise: Find a character with whom you are dissatisfied. Think to yourself: what role is she playing in the book? What characteristics do you want her to possess? Now start thinking of people you know. Who is the character like? Once you’ve located the model, try to imagine how you (because you’re always the protagonist) relate to that model. What stories do you share? Pretty soon you’ll have a foundation of facts and impressions. Go on and fill ‘er up.

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