My father passed away last Sunday. He’d been ill for some time and I’d convinced myself I was READY. PREPARED. Guess what? I wasn’t. At all. Emotions and memories surfaced from the oldest, deepest part of my subconcious mind. Softball in the front yard, flying in the cockpit with him and learning what all the buttons controlled, pranks he pulled, wounds he helped to heal. My father taught me a lot of important lessons about life and the importance of living every second of it. His death taught me something very important about my writing.
In one of my dusty novels—stored in the deepest desk drawer of the house—my protagonist, Miss Thing, learns of her father’s overwhelming financial debt after his death. In order to save the farm generations of her family have called home, she must find a way to pay off the bank. In my novel, the death of her father is nothing more than a device to get the action rolling. Miss Thing doesn’t cry much and seems to be completely over dear old Dad by chapter four or five. She’s too busy being a STRONG WOMAN who OVERCOMES the OBSTACLES placed in front of her to TRIUMPH and GET HER MAN to grieve her father.
I see the problem with this now. Until last Saturday, I didn’t. In the real world—which fiction should mirror–she’d likely be a wreck for weeks. Lots of crying, sobbing, maybe even a few pulls on the old whiskey bottle. Because I didn’t understand what she would likely be feeling, I didn’t craft a character that came off the page. Now that I know what Miss Thing might feel, I plan to go back and start all over. Add another element to her character, some depth, some maturity. Instead of grasping the real OBSTACLE–namely dealing with her grief over the loss of her father—I merely created one, inserted it and hoped it would work. Now it seems fake, fake, FAKE.
Sometimes we have to experience the feeling in real life before we can understand the emotion enough to write about it. It takes some pain and suffering to get at the real emotions that make us tick.
I didn’t need to create a new obstacle. I already had a big one written into her character. I just didn’t know how to express it properly so that others could identify with it. And until readers IDENTIFY with some elements of your story, it’s not a very good story.