“Working overseas, traversing front lines, I felt the air hum. Neutrons and protons collided about. I could feel them move through me. No barrier between life and death, just one small step, one foot in front of the other. I wasn’t one of those adrenaline cowboys I’d run into in some Third World cul-de-sac. I wasn’t looking to get shot at, wasn’t looking to take chances. I just didn’t let risks get in the way. There was no place I wouldn’t go.
Coming home meant coming down. It was easier to stay up. I’d return home to piles of bills and an empty refrigerator. Buying groceries, I’d get lost- too many aisles, too many choices; cool mist blowing over fresh fruit; paper or plastic; cash back in return? I wanted emotion but couldn’t find it here, so I settled for motion.
Out at night, weaving through traffic, looking for trouble, I’d lose myself in crowds. Gaggles of girls with fruit-colored drinks talked about face products and film production. I’d see their lips move, look at their snapshot smiles and highlighted hair. I didn’t know what to say. I’d look down at my boots and see bloodstains.
The more I was away, the worse it got. I’d come back and couldn’t speak the language. Out there the pain was palpable; you breathed it in the air. Back here, no one talked about life and death. No one seemed to understand. I’d go to movies, see friends, but after a couple of days I’d catch myself reading plane schedules, looking for something, someplace to go: a bomb in Afghanistan, a flood in Haiti. I’d become a predator, endlessly gliding in saltwater seas, searching for the scent of blood.”
It’s powerful stuff. There was also the behind-the-scenes type stuff I was looking for, but as I read his very personal account, I was reminded of the fact that everyone has their own backstory, even those talking heads on TV. They have their own pain, their own demons, their own past that has shaped who they are, and most of the time we can pass right by people on the street and not even have an inkling.
This week I also came across this fantastic news segment about one of my favorite blogs, Humans of New York. HONY is the embodiment of the truth that everybody has a story: the homeless man whose wife and daughter were murdered while he watched, helpless to intervene, who lost his job because he had such severe PTSD; the little boy whose father is a fireman and once saved 15 people. Check it out if you have a minute.
I’ve realized that I must remember this as I write- every character in my story has their own story, from the main character’s mother to the nosy next-door neighbor to the pizza delivery guy. Their story shapes their worldview and it will determine how they will respond to any given situation. In order to give my characters depth and realism I must know who they are as people. Are they a peacemaker or do they thrive on conflict? Are they self-conscious and reserved or bold and flippant? Are they the kind of person who is the first to take action to solve a problem or do they sit back and observe before doing anything? Yet another important thing to remember is that more often than not, most people fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes- reactions depend on the specific circumstances, the emotional climate, etc.
I will keep working on my characters to make them as human and lifelike as possible- and in the meantime, I will continue getting to know the real life characters all around me. I will discover their story, find out what makes them tick, and try to better understand how our stories shape our selves.