Ask a Writer #9

Welcome to another “Ask a Writer” blog post! Today I’ll be addressing a question posed by a certain hot and vivacious redheaded friend of mine from Twitter having to do with character and story creation. She asks:

@J_L_PIPPEN: Do you find that some negative and positive events and experiences in your life have affected or changed the relatability of your writing? For example having something happen to you that changes the way you understand or describe your characters?

The short answer is absolutely, yes. The longer answer is a bit more complicated, and while the fundamentals of my story and characters probably haven’t changed in significant ways due to my own personal experiences–I try to keep reality out of my fiction if at all possible!–there are a couple of characters and plot elements that I have changed based on what’s been happening in my life recently, and not so recently.

Those of you who know me well probably have a sense that I’ve struggled a lot with my self-worth and self-confidence for my entire life, probably to the point where I could be classified as having some form of depression. I’ve never called it that because it feels disingenuous to people who really have crippling depression they suffer with daily, which isn’t what I have. Most of the time I’m fine. But there will be days, sometimes several in a row, where I’ll feel down and hopeless and alone and question why I bother writing or even getting out of bed in the morning. These things usually pass quickly though and I’m back to being all right again. I’ve never felt the need to seek professional help for it–until last year, which let’s just say was a pretty rough one for me personally. I was stressed and depressed to the point where I felt like I just needed someone to talk to–and it did help. Truly. I’d advise anyone who’s feeling that way to do the same.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve always been good at, from a very young age, is that when I’m stressed or angry or sad or depressed or anything like that at all, I tend to mask how I’m feeling with humor. I make jokes, other people laugh, and I feel better about myself. I’ve more than once been compared to fictional characters like Hawkeye Pierce from MASH–who in fairness probably is a lot like me. And from what I’ve learned over the past several years, a lot of people who are professionally funny for a living are some of the most unhappy, tortured souls alive. It’s sad, but true. RIP Robin Williams, for one. So I identify with them in a way.

Those feelings of inadequacy and not belonging and the humor I conjured up to protect myself and hide what I was really thinking served as my initial inspiration for the character of Jack Ferguson–for those of you who don’t know, the hero of Camp Ferguson and more recently the sequel, Jack Ferguson Strikes Back. I embellished a bit because I wanted the contrast to be more stark here. At first glance Jack is everything I wish I could be, as he’s super-smooth, cool, and likable–if somewhat clueless and mischievous–and above all, supremely funny. He dishes out the vast majority of the funny lines in the series and is an expert prankster. Over the course of the story, though, you start to see through the cracks in Jack’s seemingly bulletproof armor–he had an unhappy childhood in and out of numerous foster homes, and never knew his parents save for a traumatizing meeting with a father who didn’t want him (I assure you, IN NO WAY a reflection of my life!). That encounter started him down a spiral of self-loathing and self-destructive depression which he only managed to overcome by entirely reinventing himself as a happy-go-lucky, carefree practical joker with no depth to him at all–the only way he wants other people to see him because he thinks no one would like him anymore if they knew the truth. In a way, he’s still self-destructive, just in ways that seem light-hearted and fun, as he focuses on cracking jokes and making people like him, and cares nothing for academics or traditional measures of success in life. You start to get a sense that he was always an outcast and isn’t quite as popular as you think he is. He reacts to the slightest bit of responsibility with disdain, disgust, and outright rebellion. I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with him, if they could get him to sit still and focus long enough or stop him from accidentally brainwashing them into mindlessly liking him from the mind magic that’s leaking out his ears.

Jack is my occasional struggle with depressive feelings taken to extremes, and a lot of what went into creating him are things that I’ve felt for my entire life. My more recent experiences have certainly helped though, especially in terms of Jack’s rejection of authority in the second book–I’ve never seen myself as a particularly good leader, and am much more content to work as part of a team rather than head it up. Again, looking at extreme reactions, Jack rebels against the notion that he’s special and has some responsibility to bear because deep down, he doesn’t want to be special–he just wants to be accepted and “normal” like everyone else. It’s something I’ve always felt too, but am just starting to get over and accept as part of who I am. Needless to say I’m much happier for it at this point–but Jack still struggles on. It’s kind of the whole point of his character arc, but I don’t want to give too much away right now. So I wouldn’t say those things have changed Jack much, but they’ve definitely deepened my understanding of him as a character and people in general who face these kinds of issues.

I’ll also give you an example of something recent that absolutely did change my story: the whole concept of the “Resistance” movement, especially among women and politicians. I don’t want to make this post about politics, so please don’t make it that. But from the first moment that thousands of women took to streets across the nation to march in the past year or so, I was fascinated by this new drive people seem to have found and the revived language and imagery of things from history like the civil rights crusade or the women’s suffrage movement. My work in progress, Jack Ferguson Strikes Back, was beginning to be outlined at the time, and was going to be all about how the scouts of Camp Prospero deal with a new leader who’s actually a competent, genuinely evil villain with plans that could hurt a lot of people. Compared to their previous boss and bad guy, who was mean, intolerant, and cruel, but in the end a bumbling moron who wasn’t a truly credible threat, the new scoutmaster would require an entirely different approach, and probably wouldn’t stand for the public campaign of undermining and insubordination that the old one had. She’d be much more likely to follow through on her threats and crack down viciously if necessary to keep the scouts in line. With current political discourse focusing a lot on subjects like the violation of societal norms, budding authoritarianism around the world, and resistance to both these things, I conceived of a scout-lead resistance movement against the new scoutmaster–an idea that’s ended up forming the backbone of the story.

As I’m still in the process of writing, I’m not sure how deep into the well of resistance imagery I want to go–I mean, it’s all over the new cover I drew for the book. Do I want to go in all the way and have my characters start an underground Free France-type organization? I sort of did that with the creation of the resistance group the Bunkhouse Boys (which also existed prior to this story in my fictional world). Do I want something less formal, like a bunch of people meeting around a campfire? I’m trying to figure that out in a way that’s organic, but maybe also entertaining and a bit funny while still being tasteful and respectful of the theme. But resistance is definitely going to be a key theme of the book going forward.

On the same subject, the large numbers of women speaking out today about their poor treatment in the workplace and otherwise gave me a push into making my main female character Tessa a bit more of an outspoken feminist. Sure, she’s had those tendencies ever since she was first introduced in Camp Ferguson, but the sequel sees her taking this activism to a whole new level as she becomes the default head of the Camp Prospero resistance–a job which brings out a new kind of social justice warrior side to her character that plays nicely with the no-nonsense, confident, and fair attitude she’s always had. She’s usually the one who offers the contemporary social commentary in the story that keeps its fictional characters and events in touch with what we’re seeing right now in the news, and I think she’s quite a good fit for it. It’s brought new depth to her as well that I think she needed, and I feel really good about being able to bring to an already strong female character.

I hope this has given you a little insight into how more current events may have shaped my characters and writing! I don’t think you should ever be afraid to work the real world into your fiction in general–it just makes it more real to the audience and will make you seem relevant. Go for it!

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