Several years ago I started the story that would become my first novel. Among the debris of the first draft were fragments of writing on a common theme: my father. The emotions involved in my relationship with my father ran deep, and it seemed like as good a subject as any for me to investigate through storytelling.
My protagonist—if one could call him that—was verbally abusive, an alcoholic, a womanizer. In other words, he was my father. Or at least what I thought of my father at the time.
When I gave this early draft to readers, they praised my book because of how real my character seemed to be. But, with the exception of one reader, my character was universally disliked, making the resulting story a difficult read to say the least.
I revised my fictional character some, but I couldn’t completely let go of my current view of who my father was. What I could do was adjust his past, the part of his life I had never been introduced to. I created a dark history for him, giving him his own abusive parents, along with a cruel older brother. I broke his heart. I confused him. I forced him to push all of his hurt down into a hard and sharp rock lodged into his abdomen.
This time when I gave the story to my readers they understood him more. My father was now sympathetic. Did they like him? Still no.
So often, our writing lives shape our actual lives. As I was working on my book, a wonderful thing was happening to me personally. My own relationship with my father was improving. Although I knew none of it was true, the history I gave my character became a possible history for my father. And, if this history was possible, then it explained…possibly…why my father was the man he was. My fiction helped me sympathize with my father, and I’ve often said if nothing else were to come from this book, the effort of writing it has been worthwhile. But, there was more to come.
I was still stuck on the fact that no one liked my character. Repeatedly, I had to convince myself that a sympathetic character was good enough. Time passed, and the relationship between me and my father grew stronger. Eventually, I reached a point where I wasn’t holding onto my protagonist’s reality so tightly. I replaced some of his bad traits with some good ones, and soon enough I got a comment from a reader that had seemed so elusive to me in the past. Someone was actually rooting for him.
I revised some more. I made my character even more likeable. I made him charming. I made him funny. I gave him the ability to dance. Only much later did I realize that I wasn’t plucking these new details out of nowhere. Just as my earlier character had been shaped by my earlier view of my father, this revised character emerged from my revised view of my father. The revelation came to me on a Father’s Day a couple of years ago, when I was able to write the simple word “Love” on a card I got for him, something I hadn’t managed to do for several years.
So often we as writers tell ourselves that we are writing fiction. What I’ve come to realize is that the fiction we create is almost always limited by the realities that we have also created. My father didn’t change much over these past few years. What changed was the way I saw him. And, until that changed, I couldn’t fake my opinion of him. For me to create a character that other people cheered for, I had to be able to cheer for him myself. My heart had to evolve, and that is perhaps the greatest gift a writer can get from writing.