Loss of a character: when authors grieve

I finished the first draft of a manuscript this week. No, I’m not taking part of the infamous #NaNoWriMo, and if I had, I might just get halfway through another 50K, but let’s take this one step at a time, to understand why the loss of a character compelled me to press on, to keep writing…

A book that creates strong emotions. I'm grateful that I'm able to touch people's lives like that.

A book that creates strong emotions. I’m grateful that I’m able to touch people’s lives like that.

As a human being, I’ve experienced loss, in various forms. I have lost two parents, one biological, one by choice, I have lost pets, I have lost people who otherwise were more or less close to me, all my grandparents, uncles, aunts, in laws etc. I know loss, I know what it means to lose someone, the pain associated. I also know we get over it. I believe that people live on, inside us, our hearts, our memories, for as long as our own hearts beat. Therefore, in a way, they don’t really leave us, ever, we just can’t make new memories together. That alone is painful.

Sometimes, we wonder why the loss of a pet, an animal, can hurt more than the loss of a relative, we wonder why we cry over the death of Princess Diana more than the death of an aunt or uncle. Surely, humans are more important than animals, relatives more important than some distant celebrity?

Yet psychology tells us that our brains are blind, they don’t see, and oftentimes our brains will not distinguish between images seen on TV or in real life, it will not distinguish between real memories and photographs, videos etc. In our dreams, we get to experience the full width of our brain’s capacity, this nightly Hollywood feature, with us in the lead, as monster, villain or hero. We get to fight and struggle, we get to have the most amazing sex with people we could only dream of in our waking state, we get to fly, and we are as strong as superman. Our brains make it all happen.

As an author, I tap into that subconsciousness, draw from it, put it o paper. When two of my characters came to see me in a dream a few months ago, I was surprised. I had never even dreamed of writing a sequel. And I thought I had done a pretty good job at hindering any such foolish attempt by ending the book with an epilogue that has had my readers divided in two warring camps ever since its publication: they either love it, or they hate it. I understand why, I was tempted to scrap it myself. I’m glad I didn’t.

So here I was, facing to write a story that couldn’t be continued. I listened to my characters, and began to write. It was hard at the beginning, because I had to tie it to the ending of the first book. I cried a lot, having to relive things I thought I never had to face again, but my characters wanted the story told, so I put it on paper. Then, on Tuesday, three days ago, by five pm, I was done, writing the ominous six letters of THE END at the end of my tenth manuscript. I could barely see them appear on the screen. I wept, I cried like a baby. The loss of a character, as necessary as it was, as much as it was planned, had ripped a huge hole into my heart. I cried uncontrollably, such was the anguish. Even though I had already known it would happen, but when the letters on the screen formed the words and sentences that made it reality, it broke my heart.

Now surely, you’ll say,  this guy is mad. We’re talking about a character, a figment of my imagination. Surely this couldn’t affect you as much as you claim it did. Well, I’m afraid I am mad, because it did. I re-read the last couple of pages just to make sure I was right, and wept again. When my husband came home, I read it to him, out loud, and I could barely see the letters, could barely articulate, and I sobbed like a child at the end.

In fact, the pain was so strong, the feeling of loss so imminent that I almost immediately continued to write, a third book to the saga. So many people were hurting, not just me. They deserved closure, I deserve closure. Why? I need to know why.

This is the jetty from which Haakon & Mahender took the boat to their island in the book. Being there, in real life, was a strong experience.

This is the jetty from which Haakon & Mahender took the boat to their island in the book. Being there, in real life, was a strong experience.

Since then, I’ve written 12K of the third story, and so far it’s a fairly psychological one, trying to understand the various characters and their reaction to the loss of the one. I have lost characters before, oh, my publisher even called me a serial killer once (she has that powder dry English sense of humor), and yes, I always cry when I lose someone dear to me. To date, it had always been Michel (The Fallen Angels of Karnataka) that had affected me the most.

I can only explain the way this has affected me with the way my characters come to life, and how they live and linger in my mind. When they suddenly disappear from my consciousness, after the publication of a novel, they linger, I know that they live on, forever. It’s how I feel about Sascha & Dan from Family Ties, it’s how I know Raphael, Micky and Brian from The Opera House live their lives, and I know that Haakon & Mahender (The Fallen Angels of Karnataka) are happy on their island in the Caribbean. In fact, I am so convinced that they are there that I got really emotional when I visited the jetty from which they’d taken the speed boat to their island. Imagination, I know, but in my mind it’s real… I even know that Willem and Hery (Willem of the Tafel) are happily traveling around the world, and that Neil and Chris (Spanish Bay) are happy, raising their patchwork family in Carmel, and I know that John and Ross from my upcoming novel Ross Deere – Handy Man, are going to be fine. I know it, deep inside my heart.

I know, I know, it all sounds a bit crazy. But that is what character driven writing is all about. I never know what my characters have in mind. Where they’ll take me, what secrets they will let me in on. I had a hunch, a strong one that the second book would end with the loss of my main character. But just as we can’t really fathom our own mortality, cannot grasp it as a concrete concept until we’re faced with it, as little is the “idea” of the loss of a character real until you read the words.

Is this the cabin from Jonathan's Hope? I don't know, but it could be, who knows...

Is this the cabin from Jonathan’s Hope? I don’t know, but it could be, who knows…

In Family Ties, the death of the mother is what brings the characters together, drives the story, acts as catalyst. Sascha’s eulogy over his mom was written eleven months before my own mother suddenly passed away. I had her in mind when I wrote Family Ties, knew it would happen, sooner rather than later. When the day came, and I had to write the real eulogy, I read the scene from the book. I couldn’t use a single sentence. What we think is reality, what we imagine it to be, is ultimately very different from the real deal. Knowing Jonathan would pass away at the end of the second book, was as logical as saying we all must die at the end of our lives. Reading the words was a totally different thing, and it broke my heart. I can only imagine what my readers will feel. I hope they’ll forgive me, just as I forgive my subconscious.

I had a dream last night: Sean, Jonathan and Dan were walking around the lake, young again, with Rascal running around them, happy, to finally have his  favorite pack members together again. I rather liked that dream! You can expect books two and three of  the Jonathan Trilogy to be published in 2016.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please share it with others. I love to connect with my readers. You’re more than welcome to interact with me on TwitterFacebookPinterestYouTubeGoogle+, and/or Instagram.

Join me again on Monday, not sure what it’s going to be about yet, but on Tuesday we travel to Seoul, the capital of Korea before I interview a very interesting blogger and reviewer on Wednesday. On Thursday, expect a review of a new novel from Debbie McGowan… It’s going to be quite the treat.

Have a great weekend! And have a peaceful first advent.

Hans

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