Last weekend I attended the book signing for Faith Hunter’s latest release, Raven Cursed. Kalayna Price was also signing books at the same time, so when festivities had wrapped up, we all went out for dinner together. We had a marvelous time, talking and laughing and making plans for upcoming con events. At one point, Kalayna was telling me how she had to have other people tell her what beef tastes like, because she doesn’t eat it, but one of her characters does. Take a second and think about how tricky that might be. “Beef is savory, and tender,” you might say. “It tastes of dark brown warmth and richness.” That’s poetic, sure, but does that really describe it? We who do eat beef know what it tastes like, but how do you express that to someone who doesn’t, in a way that is useful enough to her that she can write about it? It started me thinking about how much of what we like goes into our characters.
Sure, there are writers out there whose characters are thinly veiled versions of themselves, liking what the writer likes and doing things the writer wants to do. That’s not what I’m talking about. No, what I’m thinking of today is more subtle. Our characters, handled properly, have their own personalities, their own fondnesses and cravings and idiosyncrasies. They become real people, and just because we’re writing their stories doesn’t mean they have to agree with everything we do. Trouble is, it’s easy to assign likes, dislikes and habits to characters when they’re things we already like, dislike or do on our own. Kestrel, for example, loves dark rum. And so do I. There’s nothing so satisfying as a swallow of black rum, the sweet fumes spiraling into my head as the warmth spreads through my belly. I didn’t include it in Kestrel’s psyche because I liked it, but it was easy to write about because I do. I can take it in another direction, too. Kestrel lives on a ship most of the time, and she doesn’t like salted fish. Wait, that’s not quite right – she despises it. If she was starving and all there was to eat was a barrel of salted fish, she’d eat it, but she still wouldn’t like it. Me? I love it, but it’s a strong flavor, and I know how annoying it could become if that was the only food available, so it was simple to include a dislike of it in my character.
But what if I realize one day that Kestrel really loves to go cliff-diving? This is not an activity I will ever indulge in, not even in the name of research. Standing on the top of a three-foot stepladder is enough to set me shivering. I could read about cliff diving, sure, but it wouldn’t be the same as experiencing it. I would have to turn to other people, talk to them about how it feels to stand on that edge and launch myself into the air, hoping I’d miss the rocks. I’d have to watch their faces as they talk about the adrenaline rush of flying through the air, the thrill of hitting the water, the release of tension from landing safely.
Writers try things. We’ll order bizarre food just for the experience of it – absinthe or candied lemon peel or wild boar, things we’ve only read about, so that we can know. We’ll travel to interesting, possibly even dangerous places so we can paint the picture with words later. But when trying isn’t an option, we start hunting for people to tell us what we’ve missed. We’ll call medical professionals to ask how long it would take for someone to die from a particularly gruesome wound, or ask law enforcement officers to take us along for an hour or three in their patrol cars. I’ve told this story a kajillion times, but I once convinced my husband to climb onto our SUV and jump off so I could see what a rolling landing looked like. Oh, did I mention he did it with a sword on his side? I’m so lucky that man loves me. -laughs-
I’m curious – what have you done to learn things for in the name of your work? And if it was something you could not do yourself, how did you manage to get the information you needed?