Here’s the truth: fiction’s a lie. Here’s the other truth: it’s never not true.
Successful fiction, at the core, illuminates something real about the human condition. I can’t pretend to be an expert, not yet, but I know that much. That’s why my writing is always character-driven. I was lucky enough to be raised in an overbearing, smothering, and immeasurably loving family that also happens to be huge (we just celebrated the birth of our 100th living member, from the grandparents down, and that’s just on my mother’s side). In short: I’ve always been surrounded by characters, and I’ve always been a student of characters. All of humanity is my subject of study.
My characters are, more often than not, inspired by real people. They’re not exact replicas (that would take away any level of creativity), but there is always a hint of truth in them. Take any of my stories and point to the protagonist, and I could identify the hint of reality in them. This hunter in this story has my father’s introspection; this child in this story has the quirk of the child I nanny; this grandfather in this story smells like my grandfather did.
I had the privilege of meeting and having dinner with E.J. Levy, author of “Love, in Theory.” Levy’s writing is nothing short of phenomenal; her characters are so precise, so human, so real. “Give your characters a real trait — make them look like someone you know, say something you’ve heard, do something you’ve seen — and they’ll become real to you,” she advised me, when I asked her for character-developing advice. (That’s paraphrasing. I can’t remember her exact words. A brief example of reality twisted into fictional truth.)
So this, I suppose, is a warning to everyone I interact with: you, or something about you, could become a character.
The first story that I ever wrote came more easily than any story has ever come. I sat at a coffee shop, decided to write in second person, and was finished within three hours. It’s unfair, really, that I began writing thinking it’d be so effortless. This story flowed because it was rooted in reality: the mother in this story is afraid of what, in my observation, my own mother is afraid of. I think the character developed easily because she, at her core, wasn’t fiction at all.
Mom: this mother is not you. Know that. She only shares a fear, but fears are such magnifiers of character that she feels like a biography.
How to Raise Her
When she eats her strawberry Pop-Tarts and scrambled eggs on her first day of high school, your daughter will look like you did at her age: untamable hair, nearly sweating out naïve excitement and nervousness. She’ll be prettier and more intelligent, though.
Do not cry when you drop her off at the brick building that will shape her for the next four years. Don’t envy the walls that will see more of her than you will. And don’t ask her to pose for a picture. Make a mental recording of her “You too, Mom” when you tell her you love her.
Take her side when her father questions her modified wardrobe choices. Her short shorts will remind you of Jersey Shore, too, but know that you have to pick your battles. Stay her friend for as long as possible. Explain to your husband that styles are changing. Take her shopping at Kohl’s, where shorts are slightly longer. When she complains that Kohl’s is for old ladies, claim that you just have to use up your coupons.
While you’re at the bank, you may see a flyer from Patty’s Pottery Place advertising classes for middle-aged women. You have a high schooler. You’re middle-aged. You might take a phone number tag without really knowing why.
Watch her interact with her friends when you drop snickerdoodles off at her Homecoming pep rally. Don’t be alarmed if you cannot keep up with the dialogue speed that rivals infomercial health disclaimers. Remind yourself that teens have to find who they are for themselves when you note that her sentences lack substance. As long as she continues to stay up late with a flashlight and a worn Charlotte Bronte paperback, know that she is still the bright girl you taught to read, curled up on her bedspread, sounding out Dr. Seuss and Franklin the Turtle.
Call Patty’s Pottery Place. Your daughter is a young adult and needs less of your taxi service now that she has friends with cars. And she’s long outgrown your sandwich lunches with the notes scrawled on the napkins. Try this new thing. You liked art before becoming a parent and having your world suddenly orbit around a tiny genetic combination of you and your husband.
Her grades may slip more than you would like. It is your job to monitor this.
Your older sister’s unsolicited advice will be practical, as usual: “You have to teach her responsibility now, before it’s too late and her GPA hurts her college applications. If I hadn’t pushed Jack, who knows if he would have made it into Princeton?” Jack barely tolerates you, you think but don’t say.
Try to strike a balance between insisting on schoolwork and on being her friend. You will suspect that her straight A’s set her apart in middle school and that she’s not eager to hold on to this distinction.
While at Target, you might find yourself filling your cart with a whole slew of movies in which the guy falls in love with the girl for what’s in her head, not just her face. Beauty and the Beast, Juno, and You’ve Got Mail are a good place to start.
On second thought, drop Juno.