Tuesday, April 27, 2010

True to Life

Deep characterization comes from true to life characters. I was reading contest entries and one of the things I noticed in several was that the characters were overdone. In my mind, that means they were caricatures rather than true-to-life people. When you're working, remember this - the characters you create must be real enough to become your reader's friends (or enemies).

What is real?

I suppose that depends on the character type. What one character says or does is not necessarily what another will say or do. The same is true of life, of course. Different people act different ways in the same situation. As you're writing, continually ask yourself if your characters' actions make sense.

Another interesting aside about the entries is that three of the seven entries I read involved people who were either a product of foster care or adoption. I won't speak to any specifics because that isn't my place or my right. Suffice to say, we must delve deeply when we write rather than simply accessing surface feelings or the most recognizable of emotions. All of life is about balance and dichotomy. As writers, we must capture both to truly capture the essence of humanity.

Anyway, here is a piece of real life that has been in my mind as I craft the story I'm working on. When I think about the heroine I'm writing, these are the emotions and feelings I am trying to sink deep into her fictional psyche. No matter how hard I try, though, I can never quite convey the depth of feeling I want to. On the one had, she must feel them deeply. On the other, she must be strong enough to internalize rather than over dramatize them. It is a difficult balance in life, and must also be a difficult one in fiction.

There is a picture on my computer. In it, a man holds two little girls. His head is bowed, his right hand lifted toward the sky, his left arm wrapped firmly around his charges. The girls are squirming bundles of energy. A matched pair, they look to be identical twins. The photo can’t hide their anxiety nor can it hide the man’s gaunt cheeks and thin frame. The picture was snapped by an adoptive mother visiting an orphanage in Ethiopia, and it showcases a moment that not many adoptive parents will ever get to see. It is the last hug, the last prayer, the last goodbye.

I cannot look at the photo without crying.

These are my nieces. This is their biological father. This moment is the last they will share together.

My sister received the photo via email and forwarded it to me. I called her, and we talked about the image. The conversation will probably be lost to time, but the feelings we shared, the mixture of joy and sorrow, it will live in both of our hearts forever.

In the wake of that conversation, I find myself thinking about my daughter’s birth family more than I ever have before. I have heard it said that we should not romanticize our children’s birth parents. I have heard it said that we should not tell our children that they were given up because of love, and I have found myself persuaded by this argument – if you tell your daughter that her birth mother loved her enough to give her up, you will make her question the security of her life with you.

I see the logic of that. I understand the reasoning. I even buy into it to an extent.

But I cannot buy into it fully.

And that, I guess, is my problem.

One day, I think Cheeky will ask – Mom, why was I abandoned? How did I become the girl in this picture:

What will I tell her? That her birth family could not care for her? That they may have already had a child and could not afford to have another? That laws that limit family size might have forced her birth mother’s hand?

Any of those reasons may be true. All of them may be the truth. Maybe none of them are.

I don’t know. I will never know.

But I do know this: Sometimes love means holding on and sometimes it means letting go.

My husband and I were talking about our new nieces. He was surprised to learn that their biological father was still living. “How can someone do that?” He asked. “How can someone say goodbye to children he has raised and loved for three years.”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot since that photo arrived in my in-box, thinking about the birth father’s gaunt cheeks and thin frame, his hand reaching toward Heaven.

What if I had no money, no food, no house?

What if keeping my children meant that they would never get an education, never go to college, never get married? Worse, what if keeping them meant their stomachs would never be full? What if keeping them meant watching them slowly fade away?

What if giving them up was the kindest most selfless thing I could do?

Would that mean I loved them less? Or would it mean I loved them more?

Sometimes in a quest for honesty and authenticity in telling our children’s stories, we feel compelled to state the facts and nothing more. Perhaps that is the way it should be.


But there is a photo on my computer. My nieces and their birth father in the last moments they will share together. In Birth Father’s face I see sadness and anxiety, desperation and hope.

And, in my mind’s eye, an image plays over and over again – a dark-haired mother setting her pale child in a box and walking away. I think if I could have seen her face, that woman who walked into a crowded train station with a baby and walked out without one, I would have seen sadness and relief and hope and more desperation than I ever want to feel.

It is true that I do not have all the facts, but it is also true that my daughter’s story is about more than facts. It is about being abandoned and it is about being found. It is about miracles both big and small. It is about sacrifice and about sorrow. It is about all of those things.

And, yes, it is also about love.

My love.

Foster Mom’s love.

Even Birth Mom’s love.

When she asks, and I know she will, this is what I will tell my daughter – I can’t know for sure why your birth mother couldn’t parent you, but I do know this - sometimes it takes more strength and more love to let go than it does to hang on.

I wrote the above piece as a reflection of my own thoughts concerning my daughter's birth family. As always, though, what I experience in life finds its way into my books. I've written several characters who were adopted or in foster care, and I've written one book about a heroine who gave her daughter up for adoption (EVEN IN THE DARKNESS, in case you're wondering). Now, I'm working on another. My experiences this last year lend themselves to writing a more defined heroine than in DARKNESS, but I'm not sure I can do her justice.

I'll keep trying, though. That's what we writers do......