Friday, June 25, 2010

Guest Post: Davin Malasarn

Davin is a writer (and a scientist!) joining us from his usual blogging at both The Literary Lab and The Triplicate.

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.

I wrote.

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.


L. T. Host said...

Beautiful post, Davin. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

It's amazing the power writing can have over your real life, too!

Joshua McCune said...

Brilliant post. And one, unfortunately, I can relate to. Abusive, an alcoholic (yeah, good times were had by all when Dad was into the rum and coke), and pathological -- i.e., a powerful influence.

It's harder to separate emotion from objectivity when in the storm, but now from the outside, I think I've come to a better understanding as well.

Thanks for sharing, Davin.

Stephanie Thornton said...

That's an absolutely wonderful post, Davin. Writing can be healing- I've discovered a trend of my own with absent mothers in my stories.

Thanks for sharing.

Davin Malasarn said...

Thanks everyone! What was a surprise to me was that my writing revealed my own honest emotions without me intending it. One just can't hide!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

What a wonderful, heart-felt post! Writing opens up so much - not just possible stories but possible ideas. Maybe the bad guy has a reason? Maybe he is redeemable?

I'm glad your writing has served you so well. :)

~from a fellow (ex)scientist

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Davin, thank you for sharing this. I see my views about real-world things change all the time because of my writing. One of these days I'll write something very close to home. It will be difficult, I think.

dolorah said...

Even when writing sci-fi/fantasy, I think as writers, we invest a lot of ourselves into the MC. How we feel about our characters reflect no only how we'd like to percieve ourselves, but also the real people in our lives that influence us. Not just writing influences, but intimately, personally.

I can understand how understanding your fictional character could affect your relationship with your father. It was a productive and hopefully safe way for you to explore that important connection.

Is this novel ROOSTER? I see at The Lab you submitted a partial. How is that going?


JournoMich said...

A wonderful look at an ugly subject: relationships. This timeline is beautifully crafted. It is good to hear things have improved for you AND your character.

MicheleSouthern City Mysteries

Judith Mercado said...

I had a similar experience regarding the overlap between fact and fiction. One of my novels is a coming-of-age novel informed by my childhood experiences, but 90% of the action is pure fabrication. However, it turns out I was exploring the real-life psychology of the setting and relationships. The irony now is that that those who, like me, lived in that environment are convinced it's all true! I keep insisting it's fiction, but they keep seeing themselves in the setting. Ah well, I'll take it as a compliment that I did a good job making it all believable.

Adam Heine said...

What an awesome story, Davin. I'm really glad you shared.

Davin Malasarn said...

Thank you for your support everyone! It feels quite amazing to be able to open myself up like this and have people understand.

Davin Malasarn said...

Hey Donna,
I forgot to answer your questions. Yes, this post is based on my novel Rooster. I submitted a partial about two weeks ago, but I haven't heard back on it yet. :)