Is it you, or is it me? Struggling with a fictional character.

My protagonist’s boyfriend has been secretly begging me to allow him to cheat on her. I didn’t want things to be this way but unless she shapes up, there may not be a happy ending. I may have to do something we both might not like. What was meant to be a portrait of depression and redemption has turned into a portrait of… not much.

This is my dilemma: when I’m depressed I have the material but no will to write. When I am happy and have the will to write, I have no material.

When you’re depressed, you feel like shit. And when you feel like shit, you act like shit to other people. And they don’t like that. And they let you know about it. And your mirror lets you know about it. Which is all good material. Nothing is a waste because you can redeem it and use it for something better. But you don’t realize that at the time because you’re too miserable to lift your fingers and think straight enough to get it down on paper. And even if you could, you’d feel like it wouldn’t matter. It was really only from support and encouragement from my significant other that I wrote down what I did.

I’ve been working on what I hope to be a book on and off since 2016, but now I’m working on it steadily. The problem isn’t that it’s gotten stale. I still like it and it still means a lot to me. Dear to me for a number of reasons.

To summarize: the main character has something very wrong with her and she somehow obtains a boyfriend but he has something very wrong too. And she tries to fix the wrong thing with herself but it becomes more wrong. Which leads her boyfriend’s wrong thing to possibly become more wrong as well. And that’s where I’m stuck.

Right now, my horribly depressed character is more of an observer than an experiencer. She just observes and stutters out em-dashes now and again. Really, the book should just be titled Em Dash. Maybe that could work. Who knows.

My story was born during a very dark miserable time, and I channeled that and more into the character. I’ve gotten a lot of help for depression over the past year and I don’t feel so bad anymore. I’m not saying I’m cured. It’s still lurking there, peeking around the corner, waiting for me to get tired. Sometimes I worry it’s only been repressed and the dam will collapse and I will drown. But I don’t want to live like that anymore because it achieved absolutely nothing for me besides a decade of wasted time. (And a lot of debt, too.)

What’s more, my hand doesn’t want to do it. If I chose to, I could easily write pages and pages and pages of everything I hate about myself, but I don’t want to and my hand won’t do it. My hand says, think whatever you like. I’m not writing it. I’m not being complicit in your issues. The problem is that my hand won’t be complicit in helping me write my story, either. It’s almost like it knows where I have to go to find the material I need.

At the time I began the work, I didn’t see a way out of the black pit I was in. Now I at least have my head stuck out of it and can look around a bit more. I hope that my work could help light the way for other people who feel the same way I did. But nothing’s really happening in my story right now.

The problem is that my character seems very content not to have a path. She seems content to be miserable. Like I used to be. The great paradox of depression–pure contentment dwelling in your own personal hell. Until there’s a catalyst that forces you out, you’re gonna stay there. When I started writing, that’s where I was. Couldn’t do a thing to help myself. But I hoped that maybe I could at least redeem it through writing it down, that maybe in the process of writing, my character could help me find the way out, like an independent stand-in.

But now she’s stuck, as though I went ahead and turned around to find her way behind me. And I don’t know how to help her catch up with me.

Maybe this is a sign that I need to do some emotional reprocessing. See how cavalier I am? See, I’m fine. Need to do a little “reprocessing.” Hee hee hee. Maybe it’s just that I don’t want to go there? In some ways, I don’t feel quite adequate on the subject anymore. Is that a legitimate fear, to not feel adequate in speaking about one’s own depression, as though it’s over now? Or am I afraid or reluctant to go back and discover that things aren’t better, after all? Am I only pretending?

Because perhaps if things really were okay, I would have the perspective that comes from closure and I could write that character’s trajectory in a more convincing manner. But she’s stuck in one place. Am I stuck, too? Am I complacent? Am I blind to pitfalls that could be right in front of me at this very moment? And what if I were to fall into one? Would I be right back where I started? I can’t know the answers to any of these questions unless I go there.

I have an even scarier question than this—all my depression peeps out there, you’ll understand—what would my loved ones say if I asked them to describe what it was like to live with me? Am I prepared to do that sort of “research”? That question could take a long time to answer. I don’t know if I’m ready to ask that yet. It’s one thing for people to get mad at you and say things that hopefully they didn’t mean. It’s another to calmly ask them to tell you how they really felt.

The way I see it right now, fiction takes of us out of ourselves into someone else’s mind, and yet at the same time further into ourselves. In reading it, there’s an internal dialectic between your getting into the character’s head and your thinking about what you would do and considering your own experiences. But in writing it, it’s the opposite—you have to get into your own head and consider your experiences and think about what your character would do. In the first case, the character on the paper is the guide into your head, as though they’re holding a map for you. In the latter case, what’s in your head guides the character. You’re drawing their map. Which means you need to dig deeper into your own head. Which is where all the scary stuff is, the stuff which is to a depressive what alcohol is to an alcoholic.

If my character is doing nothing right now, this is probably my fault because it’s sort of my responsibility as the writer to figure out who the character is. This is all a reflection on me, after all. I don’t even know if she went to college or not. I am so fed up with her at this point that I think she is going to drive her own boyfriend to destroy himself in one way or another to be free of her. I have learned quickly that it doesn’t work to write a character that is an exact replica of yourself. It’s too constraining and even though it may technically be true, it doesn’t ring true somehow. So by now the character does not resemble me in many respects–except in all the negatives–but she’s been drained of many experiences as well. I had wanted to color the story with the emotions I have felt, but I’m not having much to color right now. It’s like I have paint on my brush but I don’t have anything to put it on.

I think I’m trying too hard to force events out of the emotions instead of vice versa. Emotions don’t come out of nowhere, but are reactions, reactions that were born out of previous events, based on personality and prior experiences. This is my fault for not developing something called a plot. Maybe I need to come up with some events, to give her an opportunity to react.

I know what. I’ll give her something to react to. I’m going to give her a life that makes Jude the Obscure’s look like Sesame Street. Actually, that might be worse.

38 thoughts on “Is it you, or is it me? Struggling with a fictional character.

  1. This is exactly how my third full-length book was born. It was written during a really hard time in my life and it required a lot of honest looks and descriptions of my own mental process, feeling lost and helpless, and completely alone.

    I love when writers tackle the hard subjects. Many avoid depression because on the surface (for those who don’t understand it), it seems boring. There seems to be no action and more ‘observation’, as you put it. Most authors either avoid it or briefly gloss over it. The Magicians is my favorite book – one where I thought he would talk about depression and its influence but it fell into this same trap where depression became an excuse for the character to do crappy things (not saying this doesn’t happen, but it became a cop-out for the author to justify pushing the book in a direction).

    I’d challenge you to look inside your character more as I had to do with mine. Think of what it feels like and try to paint the world inside her as things in the outside world happen. Maybe inside the boyfriend as well (I’m not sure if you’re switching POV or how it’s told). Think about what the process would be like for them each to accept their situation and either make a change in the positive direction or make things a million times worse (self-sabotage). Those sorts of actions and the thought processes and reasoning of their behavior can make for some interesting twists.

    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting! I think what interests me about depression because it produces a sort of blindness, and the individual reacts to a situation that they are perceiving in a totally warped way. What they are reacting to is not real, and there’s fallout from that. I’m speaking from experience, not in a didactic way. It’s how to get someone to see that which is the hard part.

      What is the name of your third book?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I completely understand. That’s definitely how I worked it into my book. I had my character see or hear something and go off on a thinking tangent, justifying that action or sentence as something more. It was quite interesting to follow.

        My third book is called ‘If Found, Do Not Return’. It’s available on Amazon!

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  2. Some thoughts…

    Go tangential. Take your characters on an orthogonal path to your story. Yeah they speak through you but you are not them.
    I often wondered how authors could write happy when they were melancholy. Or write heinous scenes when they were ebullient. I think it has to do with our writing NOT being who we are.

    Cosmic radio:
    https://anonymole.com/2019/12/14/writers-log-2144/

    You are not your characters:
    https://anonymole.com/2019/06/09/writers-log-2048-disturbing-content/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Could you spell that out more? I’m stupid.

      I think I do need a new approach. I’m too close to it. You know when you have a third wheel that you desperately need to go away? That’s me.

      Re: heinous content. If you’re curious about some of the most depraved behavior man is capable of, read up on animal experiments. Google images. Stuff that you think can’t be real. These people make Satan look like Mr. Rogers. Makes me want to exit this planet.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve spent some number of years now trying to understand the novel writing process. There are a few resources that stick out as useful, but most of the stuff I’ve come across is repetitive and without context.
        If you’re writing a novel and seat-o-the-pants style, and don’t really have a destination for your characters yet, then introduce a problem, a BIG critical life-or-death problem and then listen to your characters and how they deal with it.
        If your story is generally mundane (not sci-fi, fantasy, horror, spec fic, etc. — just everyday life) then have someone get hit by cellphone dropped by a drug smuggler flying heroin from Taxacala MX to MooseJaw CA.
        Or they find an abandoned pair of twins in a rowboat they see drifting down the river. Or a the woman gets mistakenly arrested for solicitation which triggers…. Go left, not straight.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You’re definitely right about the repetitive stuff out there. I know you’re right about inserting a big problem and seeing how they deal. Too much talking, not enough dealing. There’s really no answer here for me than to stop being lazy and just do it.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, no it’s not because I just want to say I wrote a book! I got over that a long time ago. And I’ve already given myself the license. It’s just the executing of it, trying to separate myself from the character so I can let the story happen on its own. My purpose in writing something is the hope that maybe someone will read it who has been through stuff, who will see that there’s a way to process things and that the process can have a good outcome, and will have some hope about things getting better. But again, it’s the separating myself and letting them be independent that’s tricky.

      PS Thank you for your comment!

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  3. I’m currently attempting to read through the 100 best short stories of the last century as per John Updike and every single story so far is written from the viewpoint of a depressed person making bad decisions or having no way to even make bad decisions …. so I’d say let your characters take all the abuse for you. Then watch some upbeat silly movie. Writing should be cathartic. Don’t worry – they’re not going to be angry (don’t read At Swim Two Birds, though) Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s just the human condition. I am very suspicious of people who are happy all the time (especially at work 😲😲😲). It’s like, don’t you see how sad life is? I wonder if they’re not too smart. (If you’re happy and you know it, I am sorry if I offended you–I’m probably just defective.) Re:writing, you have to get the pain or sadness out somehow and least on paper you might be able to create a resolution. Or at the very least there’s a product to show for it. I like your idea of reading all those short stories. A skilled writer can get to the heart of the matter quickly and with great emotional impact.

      Thank you for stopping by.

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  4. Hi Hot,

    Well it looks like you are tapping into some of my old virtual pals. They have been all over this writing thing for a while. So good. Here is my take; 1) Voice. Find your voice and everything eventually falls into place. You will know when you have it when the writing comes easy. The good thing about finding the voice is it sticks with you for the whole process. I get it by starting and stopping. I know when it works, because suddenly it is 2:00 a.m. and I’ve been writing for five hours and I lost track. 2) I often find it easier to write in 2nd person. It is definitely me, but I get to observe my actions, just not as a self judge. No, it is the 2nd person judging me. Who is this 2nd person? That is the fun of it. Nobody knows. So I can be outside looking in at myself and still get to write about something shitty that I did. It is easier for me. 1st person is not bad either, but then everybody says, “Oh, you did that? What a fucked up person you are.” Funny, you don’t find too many novels in the 2nd person. Don’t know why. 3) Due to what I have read of your writing, you have the dialog down pat. Many, many novels have the give and take, the confusion, the doubts of internal dialog for each character. This is a real skill and you possess it. Use it. You are on the verge of writing a psychological or existential novel if you use your skill. I’d go for it. Also, you might find a good existential novel and read it or reread it as the case may be. I recently reread some Camus. It was helpful. In that sense good poetry is also instructional. 4) Great novelists are in the emotion business. To put an honest emotion on a piece of paper is a beautiful thing. Great art is often derived from internal suffering. Actors do it. Painters, poets; I used to ask the question: can a good person write great prose or poetry. Maybe a few, but it generally takes a reformed fuck-up to produce great art. So maybe you are like that. Don’t know. Just guessing. There are tons of fuck-ups producing great poetry and prose. Look at a few of them. I remember first time I read Jesus’ Son. It gave me the permission to write the way I do. That was a long time ago and I have moved on, but it was a pivotal moment. You need to have that moment. It can come from anything. So keep talking, writing, living, reading, fucking up, giving stuff away, working hard, having sex (even alone), lying, cheating, being helpful and kind to others, being honest, tying one on, dropping acid, getting into a fight … whatever it might be, but be open and it will come. Also, it would be a good thing if whatever it turns out to be, doesn’t kill you in the process. I used to tell people, it is better to be lucky than good. Any day of the week. Good luck. Thanks. Duke

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to write that to me. You’re very perceptive and I appreciate that. It’s funny, dialogue is my favorite part. Plot is my worst, unless I’m writing something funny for someone else. I live a very boring, sheltered life, so mine is a life of thoughts and emotions, not action. It’s funny too you mentioned existential stuff. I was a philosophy major and existentialism was my favorite subject out of them all, because you don’t need to leave your house to gaze into your belly button. And I just reread some Camus myself (The Plague, seemed appropriate). This is getting spooky now. And one of my other favorite subjects… fucking up. I’m a go-big-or-go-home type of person. I really don’t do much of anything interesting at all but when I fuck up it’s something no one else was stupid enough to do and has consequences reaching decades into the future. That fuels me a lot, actually. If I could just make something out of my big mistakes, then maybe I could sort of justify them, at least a little bit. Otherwise it’s too depressing to contemplate.

      Anyway thank you again for taking the time! It isn’t lost on me.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmm, actually, I’m more bitter than those lyrics, at least when I allow myself to be. But many of those thoughts have gone through my head, as you correctly guessed. There’s where the hand comes in. I can think and think those thoughts for a certain amount of time until I’m distracted or fall asleep, but if I start writing them, it really gets the ball rolling downhill and I can’t stop.

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  5. I had a two book, happy ending, fa la la la la. And then they decided to get themselves dirty. I fought with them over it. Get that shit outta my fairy tale! To no avail. So you just gotta go with it. Don’t let them sell you, just say okay, fuckers, get to it,show me what ya got. And they’ll fumble and improvise and you’ll have chapters that come off weak, or too far afield and you’ll back up to where the wheels came of and somewhere in what you threw away is the peripheral character that will be the spark that will get them dirty but mean something, make your story worthwhile not just oh here’s some trite trauma to get their panties in a twist. They’ll figure it, your job is to keep up and drag them back from the weeds when their improvs leave the rails. Just hang on, you aren’t driving.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for commenting. I appreciate your advice. The problem is that I already tried things your way and now my characters are ugly and I can’t fix their faces in my mind’s eye 😰😰.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I never really know what they look like. Exerting control is futile unless you fold and adopt plug n play. Which is okay so long as you don’t lose your voice. Sameness is so…predictable.

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  6. It’s actually the reverse for me. When I’m depressed, I get both the fuel and the material to write. When I’m happy, writing tends to be put on the backburner. Hope you get over this character fiasco soon! I myself struggle a lot with character development, and would rather just sit back and write unnecessary world building.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for stopping by. It’s funny how different people are, isn’t it? I’m terrible at world-building on top of it. My stories are really just disembodied heads, usually fighting about something, in an unspecified time and place..

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  7. And all you depressed people…WTF? Half the web is depressed, the other half are life coaches, the last half write personal escapism with vanilla skills and call themselves authors. Nothing is fair, everybody’s fucked up, life sucks. Get over yourselves, quit whining and work on improving your content. If we all worked on our craft with as much zeal as we whine Amazon would be full of literature not half assed indie wanking. Think about it. Dwell on kicking ass instead of moping and the head will follow. Wallowing in the muck of “my issues” is a self fulfilling prophecy, y’all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I cannot speak for anyone else here, but I’m talking more about the clinical variety. Zeal is making the choice between dragging your ass to your desk or banging your head on the bathroom floor. I try and keep things a little light to avoid dragging other people into the pit too. But I would be a shameful liar if I said I never engaged in the whiny and useless variety. Your characterization of the internet was spot on and I had to laugh. But complaining and crying is my birthright and yes if I spent that time writing Tolstoy would look like a downright slacker.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As long as you’re not marketing under the “I’m so fucked up” cloud all is well! That was another half of the internet half of depressives. It’s like” look at what I survive, buy my book(s) or I’ll slit my wrists.” I busted on this guy one time, he was bummed out for three years, so bad he had to take a walk across europe tour. His issue was he was and egregious, sexist asshole and the love of his life said adios. So three yeasrs later he’s still feeling sorry for himself. Huh? Dude, own it, stop writing books as an apology and marketing it. Oh well. I worked with a guy one time, then industry had two big trade shows a year. He got sick before every one. The point being if he sucked, well he was sick, and if he rocked, look at how well poor Danny did, sick and everything. Carry on. Feel better. Kick ass.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes.. I find it’s a process of being able to identify and put a name to what I felt, and be able to catch myself when I’m doing it again. Once they’ve been identified, it gets a little easier to draw upon them when I have the will to do it. It’s all about keeping the will alive!

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I guess I’m the other way. Sometimes when I’m happy I can’t be bothered to write (unless I’m happily inspired and have to share it!), but if I’m upset, I HAVE to write, to get it out of my system. I can remember times coming home and yelling “Nobody bother me til I’m finished writing!” Then when I’m finished getting it out on paper, I take a deep breath, and say “OK, I’m fine now.” 😉

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        1. It’s sad, huh, how we can be really happy and not feel like we need to write it down. But that’s great that you’re able to get the bad stuff out of your system! My problem is that I would never get it out of my system, and I would just keep going, and going, and going… I went nowhere. I produced nothing of any value whatsoever. I’m just coming to grips, now, with how to view the negative stuff I used to write and turn it into something productive, that maybe I can depict things in a way that other people who feel the same way could relate to and feel more hopeful. I couldn’t lift a pen at the time to write one productive word. But I’m feeling a little better now, so I can lift the pen for a long time. The problem is that my material is all from the negative side. I’m just trying to connect my past and my present in a productive way.

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          1. I understand – and look, you’re expressing how you feel to me right now, right??
            At the risk of self-promotion, may I invite you to take a peek at my blog? It’s called “Seeking Divine Perspective” for a reason. Those times I’m happily inspired is when my perspective has been transformed from seeing it my way (or the world’s way) to seeing it God’s way, and things suddenly make sense! At that moment, it’s too good NOT to share. 🙂
            Here’s a story of a day that started out particularly depressing:
            https://seekingdivineperspective.com/2020/05/29/what-else-matters/

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  8. How lovely that you have so many amazing friends to help you out of a jam. I am posting this because I had that same problem about two months ago. In the middle of drafting a novel, I started to feel sick at the sight of my protagonist. He was a complacent mommy’s boy. I needed him to be wishy-washy at the start, because the world is falling into chaos and he has buck up. I stopped writing, as I thought I might have to give up writing the story. Eventually, I fixed the problem by making him stare into the eyes of a bad character and calmly pull the trigger on a weapon aimed at this person’s head. After that, I changed the scene a little bit because the story is science fiction. I created a weapon that “fires” but uses unusual ammunition. Should be a fun twist for the reader. (I hope).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! I am very grateful for the comments and advice I have read, including your latest contribution. Yes, isn’t it a funny thing when you’re disgusted with a fictional person who is the fruit of your own mental loins? (I have no clue where that disturbing image came from but I’ll leave it.) I think sometimes we have to let them be themselves and not who we might want them to be. You raised your fellow to be a mama’s boy but look what he did when you gave him a gun.

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