When I was in junior high, I wrote stories about a girl named Kim Swanson. I named her Kim because I wanted a name like “Kim”—popular, cute, perky. I wanted to fit in, to belong. “Lindsey” stuck out—I know, it’s a common name now, even a trendy one for a certain age group, but trust me, back then, I was the only Lindsey. Well, Lindsay Wagner came along a few years later, but that just made for a lot of lame bionic jokes.
Kim Swanson attended a girls’ school in New England: Furst’s Girls School, run by a thin gray-haired woman named Miss Furst, straight out of Victoria Holt. Kim had a gaggle of good girlfriends, a boy she liked and who liked her back (Matt, or maybe Mike), and long blonde hair. She wore pretty, soft sweaters over her uniform.
I wrote about Kim in longhand on binder paper, in first person. I have these pages somewhere, in a folder for the biographers. You know: Crittenden’s early work showcases her obsession with adolescent popularity, gothic romances, and World Book Encyclopedia.
Why World Book? I used to spend hours on the shag rug in our den, poring over the entries for New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont. (Sorry, Massachusetts, for some reason you didn’t make the cut.) I wanted to live in a town called Devon or Bristol, a town with a village green and trees that turned orange in October. I was convinced that I’d been born on the wrong coast, where the sun shines too often and everyone is supposed to be fit and healthy. So I put Kim in New England. (No field hockey, though.)
I mention Kim because I’ve been thinking about how we project our own longings and fantasies on our characters. Yes, at some point, they take on a life of their own. Writers speak of characters’ refusing to do what we, their creators, want them to do. When I mention this recalcitrance to my students, they always look a little worried, as if I’m going to suggest we all sit in a circle and hold hands and channel creative energy.
Here’s what I mean: say we have a character named Eileen who needs to do something on the page. We’ve been in her head too long and need to impose a little action. Hey! Let’s have her go to the local bar and confront her ex! We start the scene and get stuck at the door. It takes us two hours to write one paragraph in which she walks into the bar. She doesn’t want to go there. She has a mind of her own. She has free will. Another way to put it: it’s not the right move for the plot because it doesn’t come from character but from authorial puppeteering.
When I started writing fiction two decades after Kim—I took some time off, but that’s the topic for another post—my first story took place in a fictionalized Watsonville, on an artichoke farm. The narrator, Mollie, a nine-year-old girl, lives with her parents next to the McDonough family, who—in addition to artichokes—raise bees. The McDonough daughter, Merrill, has disabilities, and during the course of the story, Mollie betrays Merrill in order to get in with the popular girls at school. (One of whom I named Kim.)
Mollie, of course, is I (for you grammarians out there), and I am Mollie. I’ve never lived in Watsonville or played in artichoke fields or had a disabled friend. But I know about nine-year-old girls.
When I took this story to grad school and showed it to my thesis adviser, along with other work, she wrote me a note. I have one question: Are all these narrators Mollie?
She had a point. All the main characters in those stories came out of the same part of myself. They think about things that I, at one point, have thought about. Their circumstances vary from mine, but they’re all introspective and, for the most part, passive.
I’ve learned since to write trouble-makers, to access not only what I would do or think but what I would never do or think or what I would love to do or think but don’t have the guts (or the pathology).
Case in point: Eileen. She’s a major character in my novel and, as a member of my writers’ group pointed out, “so different from you.” Or, as another member suggested, maybe my reluctance to make Eileen too dangerous, too screwed-up, is a way of protecting the real-life model for Eileen.
Worth considering. Eileen does not navel-gaze. She takes action, often misguided, risky action. Yes, I’m more comfortable writing thinkers, not doers. But fiction needs action.
Lately, Eileen’s been coming more easily, often surprising me on the page. And if all else fails, I can try changing her name.