Friday, November 02, 2012

A Character Demanding to be Heard

After a recent writing retreat, a character came to me with his story and I'm afraid to tell it.  I'm afraid that I'm the wrong person because there's a lot I don't really know about this character's world and I'm afraid to find out.  He's challenging me, challenging my own belief in my open mindedness, challenging my willingness to step outside my comfort zone, challenging my confidence.

The character is a gay teen in the 1980s who moves to the Castro District of San Francisco and experiences the devastation of the AIDS epidemic.  He's brought a book title with him, an incredibly strong voice, a compulsion to tell his story and even a plot structure.  He's also brought an in-your-face challenge:  "Are you, Cindy, willing to learn what you need to learn to tell my story?  Are you willing to really get to know me and my world?"  And I don't know the answer.

He was so insistent that I pulled my car over to the side of the road while I was driving back from this writing retreat and wrote 500 words in his voice, 500 words that appears to be the opening of a YA novel.  Then, when I got home, I started a Scrivener file for this project.  If you know anything about Scrivener, you know that step represents a certain level of commitment.  I even started an outline.

It's clear this kid has pull, this kid who won't tell me his real name but simply says "Call me Ishmael."  This kid who believes the story of the fight against AIDS is the gay community's epic struggle, on a par with GILGAMESH or the ILIAD, or MOBY DICK.

I remember the AIDS epidemic.  I know this kid's big feelings about that epidemic come from a deep place inside me and from my own experience and my conviction that this story needs to be told for a YA audience.  It's a part of history that isn't making it into the history books young adults encounter.  But my experience was not as deep as this kid's.  I was more of an outsider, a straight woman in the theater community with gay friends and relatives who died.  I've tried telling the story from a POV character closer to me.  It's not working.  Then along comes this kid saying, "Hey!  This is my story, damn it!  You need to tell it my way."  What am I supposed to do with this?

 Perhaps this is a time to apply my own advice from one of my recent posts and say "Yes, and ..."

Have you ever had a character grab you with this level of insistence, a character whose story you feel you have no right to tell, might not even be able to tell, but the character has other ideas?


  1. Cindy,

    Wow! I think you'd better listen to this kid and tell his story. Powerful blog post. I've had strong characters, but never this strong.
    I believe you can write his story.


    1. That's what my writing group said, too. So I guess I've gotta go for it.

  2. Yes you do, Cindy. It is my belief that writers are called to our work, and sometimes we are pushed to write beyond our comfort levels. If we are lucky. :-)

  3. I don't think you have to be a gay teen to tell the story. In each of us who write, we have this compelling need to tell a story, whether it's our own or another's. If your desire to tell a story involves a young, gay person, then you will only do it justice, no matter your own age or sexual orientation.

    Part of fiction is interpretive art. You have to explore where you lack knowledge, but we all have something in common, and that is our own experience with and reflection upon humanity.

  4. Listen to this kid, You've got all you need to write his story, clearly he'll keep you on the right path.

  5. I've had a few experiences like this, though none quite as intense as yours here. My thought is this: If the kid is that demanding, you have to listen to him. Whatever it takes. Take heart from the fact that he thinks you can tell the story.

  6. Thank you for all the encouragement. I have, indeed, decided to run with this, or rather, to follow this kid where he takes me. I've begun plunging into research, and bouncing between character sketches, setting notes and outlining. It's actually pretty exciting, though I'm trying not to neglect other projects in the meantime.

  7. Looking forward to meeting this kid, through your eyes.


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