Characterization vs Real Life and How Writers get it Wrong

I should be working on A Witch’s Rite.

Clearly that isn’t happening.

Prince Charming and I had a wonderful weekend filled with family and friends. It was really nice to see everyone and spend time with people we don’t see as much as we would like. One of the big events was a surprise birthday for a family member that was largely organized by the birthday girl’s mother-in-law.

Not only was the party awesome fun, but it was a true family celebration, with everyone coming together to make it an unforgettable day. It was also a little sad for Prince Charming and myself. He looked around and could see all the ways his mother would’ve been involved if only she was still with us. I was told how much I look like her, and stood there knowing I would never get a gift from my mother in law. I would never be cutting a cake while she gleefully informed me that it was chocolate and vanilla.

It’s not that my mother-in-law wouldn’t have done those things – every one of my newly acquired family members assures me she would’ve – it’s that it can’t happen. She’s years gone from here.

I was so sure I could write this without crying. I was wrong.

Last night, Prince Charming and I held each other and cried. We cried for what he had lost, and what couldn’t be.

As strange as this sounds, all those emotions and experiences directly relate to writing. Often times main characters are missing one or both parents. There are a lot of reason for that, it simplifies the writing process, removes characters that won’t be fully developed or involved, and with young adult novels it allows the author to do things with the character that parents would never ever allow.

However, in stories where a parent is dead, it’s often presented as a fact that has little emotional impact or as a tragic event that the character is recovered from. I’m blessed and still have both my parents, but I have several friends who’ve lost a parent. That’s a wound that never really heals or if it does it takes years. And I mean fifteen or twenty not three to five.

Plus, there are a few issues that are seldom mentioned in literature. The wound left when a parent passes away, well, it hurts the child and all the people around them. Some of that is for obvious reasons. If you’re close to someone who loses a parent, odds are you knew the parent too and feel the loss.

Here’s the crazy part, one that’s almost never brought up in books, the loss of a parent can hurt someone who never met the parent but cares deeply about the child. For example, I came into Prince Charming’s life at least four years too late to meet his mother. Last night we both cried for what could have been and what had been lost. When we were planning our wedding my husband had to deal with the reality that his mom wouldn’t be there, but knowing what it would’ve been like if she was because he remembers what his mother did when his sister got married. I did my best to make it feel like things were happening exactly as they would’ve if his mother had been there, all the while knowing I was attempting the impossible.

It’s rare for a character in a book to have those moments. Typically, if they do it’s within a year or two of the relative’s death. What’s thought of as the “acceptable mourning time.” In reality those moments when it hits you can come at any point, at times when you don’t even see it coming, like a surprise birthday party.

The times I can recall a similar set of feelings being mentioned in a book, it was largely glossed over. Something like:

“I wish my mother could be here,” He said softly as we watched the celebration.

Laughter echoed through the room, but it felt distant, as if the two of us were viewing from afar. “She’s here in spirit.” I slipped an arm around his waist. His arm came around my shoulders and he pulled me close.

“She is, and she wouldn’t want us to miss a moment of our wedding.” A smile broke through his somber reflections. “Come on, I want to dance with my wife.”

Let me tell you what actually happens.

More than four years after my mother-in-law’s death, I’m at a party with my husband and he looks lost for a moment. Later, I learn that he was thinking about how much his mother would’ve loved the party. She would’ve been in the thick of things, and planning to do a similar event for either my husband for myself.

I am told I look like her. Since I’ve only seen a few pictures of her and don’t have a super clear idea what she looked like in person, never mind how she looked at different points in her life, I stand there awkwardly and try to find the right thing to say. I’m torn between saying what I’m thinking, which goes something like, “Do I? Hum, we do have that one picture of here. I can see it. *shrug* It doesn’t matter much either way.” Or sticking with the polite southern reply. “Do I? No one’s said that before.” (I went with the second because I’m a Georgia Girl.)

A day later I tell my husband that the party made me sad because I realized I would never open a present my mother-in-law picked out for me, or do a hundred other tiny things that happened at that party. Then he’s telling me how he had a moment at the party, and really had to focus to avoid crying at someone else’s event. Then we’re both crying. And I’ve never met the woman, and this has been his reality for years.

That’s life. It hurts when you least expect it, for reason that you never dreamed it could.

I won’t stop writing characters with deceased or absent parents, but I’m going to rethink it a little. There’s a character in the works who’s an orphan, and after this weekend, I can tell you that she’s going to miss her parents. The story is going to catch up with her between 4-10 years after their deaths, and while in other books that would simply be her “tragic past,” in this book it’s going to be her every day reality. She will have thoughts like,  “This is a life unlike anything my parents wanted for me,” “I wish they could see me like this,” “My mother would’ve loved this dress,” and “If only my parents could see me now they’d be so proud.”

Actually, in this book they might not be proud, but that’s a different story, one that’s itching to be written so I better finish up A Witch’s Rite so I can start on other projects.

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