Thursday, February 18, 2016

On Being a Swiss Chard and Rambling About It

As a lifelong writing aficionada, I often wondered how writers do it. How do they give life to characters who are so different from them? Or are there writers who live vicariously through their characters' feats, even if the character is a downright scoundrel?

Take, for example, the character William Hamleigh from The Pillars of the Earth. This is a disgusting, loathful man, the epitome of villainous creatures (who several times in the novel walks the fine line of becoming a caricature). He rapes, he maims, he kills, and he enjoys it all tremendously. But does this show us who the author is?

There's an expression in Catalan which I particularly like: ets una bleda. Literally, it means "you're a Swiss chard." Figuratively, it means that you need to grow a backbone.

Well, when it comes to animal suffering I'm 100% bleda--spineless. I've cried rivers over all sorts of animals and had several nightmares where I wake up in a sweat and trembling like an absolute bleda. The first nightmare I remember having in my entire life involved my kitten getting flushed down the toilet. Another time, more recently, I was a factory worker in charge of snapping geese necks. Yet another time, I was a journalist following the story of a homeless man who would chase stray kittens, impale them, and eat them.

Awful, graphic stuff. So when I came across a dying kitten in the street, of course I scooped him up and rushed him to the vet. Of course I took him home and together with my husband Salva brought him back to life. Of course I cried for sleepless nights (the kitten had an awful habit of scratching his eyes at night and making them bleed--good thing we have a 24-hour veterinary hospital on our same street). And of course I acted like such a bleda that I even hurt my back (lumbago out of stress) and had to miss work.

All better now!
My feelings towards animal suffering are strong, but is that also true for my characters?

While Eneld Cross, biorobotics engineer, is quick to recite the Animal Protection Act, lovable sidekick Seth has a disturbing hobby of scooping out rat brains and inserting them into robot carcasses. Tristan Cross really couldn't care less about animal rights because he's got too many problems on his mind already, and the demonologist Robert Westbrook has performed acts of cruelty both on animals as well as humans--and demons.

Does this make me love them any less? Nope!

Let's return to Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth. There is a notorious scene in which the most villainous of villains revels in torturing a cat, I believe to death. My memory is fuzzy because once I saw where the action was heading I skipped the scene altogether. The graphic nature of the chapter was enough to make me want to stop reading the novel. Are Hamleigh's actions a reflection of Follet's beliefs or values or desires, or whatever you want to call it?

And what about the master of killing sprees? If you've ever read any of his work, you won't be surprised to know George R.R. Martin adores cats. Too bad most of his characters are mere humans! Even though his books are written in blood and several main animals and humans die, no cat comes to any harm. Arya chases cats for agility practice, but the kitties only receive a kiss on the nose once she catches them.

Sometimes I wonder if my characters' actions are, in some way, a reflection of myself.  If you've ever read any of my work, you'll know my protagonists are far from perfect. Tristan is foul-mouthed and has blood on his hands. Eneld, the "good brother" is a womanizer and starts off the series with a drug abuse problem. And these are the heroes--the ones we sympathize with! Antagonistic characters such as Robert have planned and done much worse (just have a look at The Soul Distillery).

To be honest, I haven't done any of the things my characters have (no murders, demonic worshipping or drug abuse over here, Your Honor!), but it's so darn fun to write about them!

So, maybe because I'm a Swiss chard in real life, my characters do the things they do.

What about you? Do your characters reflect parts of your personality? Do your characters show personality traits you find annoying, disrespectful, loathsome?

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