Characters You Envy
On the last day of my most recent visit to Gros Morne National Park, I went to Trout River. This is turning into something of a tradition; I love the ocean, and after ten days in the paradise of western Newfoundland, it’s important to spend a little time at the shore, collecting my thoughts and preparing to return to seemingly-nonstop daily schedules.
Trout River beach is the perfect place for this sort of quiet meditation… and it’s at its best when you arrive at the beach, and walk straight into the water.
Well, I thought so.
It was a warm day in August, so the water wasn’t instantly numbing as I walked barefoot across the coarse black sand, until the calm Atlantic was lapping at my knees. That’s when I stopped –– had to stop –– and looked out to the horizon, wishing I could just dive in.
I’m a good swimmer. For four years in my youth, I even swam competitively, and my instincts for water never really went away. As I stood there in the sea, I could imagine cruising across the top of the waves, catching the fresh air and seeing the coast of my beloved home rock in a way that no humans can –– at least without genuinely risking our lives.
You see, the Atlantic is no pool. You do not attempt to casually swim in Newfoundland’s coastal waters; the tides, currents, cold, and wildlife are too much. You respect the sea, and ply it in a boat. No matter what madness possesses you, no matter how calm it looks, or how good you think it might feel, you don’t go for a quick dash beyond the headland.
That’s what I had to accept, standing there in the beginning of a painted ocean… and as I once again came to terms with my human limitations, I found myself feeling envious of the one person I know who can safely swim the sea.
Trout River is the beach she came up in the prologue of Whitecoat –– the place to which she delivered those wayward boys and their dory. Standing in the water, I could just picture her triumphant arrival… and her harried escape, as the locals tried to kidnap her and feed her because she seemed too skinny for her own good.
Alex could swim the very waters in which I stood –– could see my home island, which I dearly love, in a way no others really can. For that reason, I envied her. Still do. And that’s a good thing.
When people ask me about creating characters, I often say it’s important to find fictional people who you like, and want to spend time with. Writing a book is a time-consuming affair, and if you don’t enjoy the characters inside the story, it can become nigh-impossible. So like your characters, and save yourself some trouble.
But take it a step further: have characters who you envy. Perhaps not all of them (unless you’re writing about Earthers), but have at least one or two who, whenever they come on the page, make you shake your head and think: I want to be like you when I grow up.
I suppose such wish-fulfillment is one of the privileges enjoyed by every fiction writer. We get to live vicariously through our characters –– do things we never really could, and even control the outcomes (for better or worse). The things we experience are entirely make-believe, of course… but maybe the power of one’s imagination means their lack of reality doesn’t entirely negate their value.
You see, when I was standing in the water at Trout River, I knew I’d never see the Newfoundland shore the way a seagull might, or a whale might… but there was consolation, because I had seen it the way Alex did, and I’ll see it that way again. Rightly or wrongly, that made me feel better.
This year in Gros Morne, I twice climbed past 2,000 feet, got lost in an enchanted forest, and was tormented by whales. I’ve now left Newfoundland behind for another year… but thanks to Champions, I get to go back often, and see it in wondrous, magical ways.