Monday, July 30, 2012

The Blessing of an Imperfect Life

"Who has never tasted what is bitter does not know what is sweet."

Giving our characters emotional weeds brings them to life. 
This summer my daughter has been ill. I can't tell you what's wrong with her, not for privacy reasons but because we don't know. We've spent most of the summer going from doctor to doctor, like bloodhounds sniffing this or that trail of symptoms, hoping this time, this test, will explain her hodgepodge of maladies. 

It's been a stressful summer for us.  Of course, she's missed out on fun with her friends, and spent more time feeling yucky than anyone her age should. She's experienced pain, real pain, maybe for the first time in her young life. For the rest of us, her illness has meant ancillary stress. More to balance, to work around, to take care of. One less person to help with things. One more sleepless night filled with worry. But I have to share with you that I truly believe that the burden of this illness does not come without an equal blessing and, I think, a lesson for writers (and artists) everywhere.

Every once in a while I will get an email from a young reader who says they loved the Soulkeepers but think the bigotry described isn't realistic. It's too raw. Teenagers don't talk like that to each other. I respond by saying that I'm happy and encouraged that they've never experienced anything like what's in the books but I also let them know that every incidence is based on a real life situation. In fact, I get other emails, more frequently, from readers who've had such experiences, readers who are thanking me for spotlighting the reality of prejudice in my fiction.

The truth is, life is difficult.  Everyone, rich or poor, has struggles. And therefore, when we write, if we want to write well, our characters, to be accepted in a personal way by our readers, need to come with baggage. Weaknesses, insecurities, humiliations, and even horrors of the past are brutally important to the action of now. Our characters can only respond to our plots from the perspective of their past. After all, only a small percentage of people grow up unscathed, whether from the circumstances they were born into or the circumstances thrust upon them.

Do your characters have a past before you start writing? Or are they born on page one? I believe, since they come from you, they are born far before ink hits paper. Your characters carry the baggage of your past, and the more you see those scars, those past challenges, as blessings—tools that connect you to your readers in a real, personal way—the more your words will come alive.

I have faith that we will solve the mystery of my daughter's illness and do whatever it takes to heal her. And, someday, I hope she looks back on this summer of needle sticks and plastic vomit bowls with an understanding that it has created in her something unique and purposeful: greater empathy for those with chronic illness, an interest in the medical field, or maybe even, if she goes into the arts, a larger emotional palette. I know that's how it was with my childhood illness, my bullying, and yes, even my heartbreaks. 

And now, one more blessing, the ability to share this with you with hope that you crack the door to that long hidden thing closed up in your brain, and feed it to your characters.

G.P. Ching is the author of The Soulkeepers Series and a variety of short fiction. She specializes in cross-genre paranormal stories, loves old cemeteries, and enjoys a good ghost tour. She lives in central Illinois with her husband, two children, and one very demanding guinea pig. 

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  1. Wow, thanks for sharing, Gen, and so very true. Hope your daughter heals very soon.

  2. I'm sending healing thoughts and prayers your way right now! Life can indeed be difficult. At least we have family and friends and God to help us through.

    1. Thank you, Stephen. I agree, God is looking out for us.

  3. I think one of the things I really liked about SoulKeepers was that it portrayed small town racisim so well. When people think about racisim they only think in black and white when there are many more colors of that rainbow.

    I think that is why I love SoulKeepers so much. A half-chinese main character and his girlfriend is Indian. I don't know if I've EVER seen something like that in a traditional book.

  4. I'm sorry your daughter has been ill. That hurts 100x much more than getting sick ourselves.

    I agree that there is a lot of terrible ugliness in the world. For those that think it's not realistic within a novel, well. I hope they continue to live a more pleasant life than others do!

    1. Thanks, Lydia. I agree and I think that's the challenge for artists is to share the ugliness in a way that brings light and informs those who are not aware.

  5. this is a beautiful post - thank you so much for sharing your personal story with us and reminding us of the humanity in our characters.