If you will practice being fictional for a while, you will understand that fictional characters are sometimes more real than people with bodies and heartbeats.
Los Jocales is one of my favorite places to go for lunch. Although far from fancy as restaurants go, its authentic, beautifully seasoned interior and vivid, unpretentious Mexican atmosphere found its way in my story as a favorite hangout for my hero. I’m not sure why I chose it, other than the fact that it’s nondescript, an everyday place filled with everyday people. A place I know well and can feel it as I write it. It’s as though, when dining in one of Los Jocales’ well-worn booths, I’m living my story.
Last Friday, though, something wonderful happened that came to me as an assurance that my book needed—that it WOULD—be finished. A sign, if you will.
The Tejano music from the juke box serenaded us as usual. The waitress who spoke very little English (how convenient that my friend Sylvia speaks fluent Spanish) had taken our orders. We relaxed, dug into the chips and salsa, and settled in for an hour of office gossip.
Then he walked in.
I knew him right away, sensed him before I ever even got a good look at him. It was his aura, his bearing, his elegance, his coloring, his attire, his…everything.
The hero of my book.
The moment he passed our table, my friends and I looked up simultaneously, and—struck by his appearance, his extraordinary presence—we stopped talking and traded appreciative glances.
Sinking into the next booth, he threw an elegant, cordial smile to the waitress and took a proffered menu. A wonderful chill rushed through me because even his quick, polite glance at the waitress was exactly as I described my character’s actions in one scene in the book.
Mesmerized, I attempted to eat, struggled not to stare at him, but managed to drink in every little nuance—the simple yet swank watch on his wrist, the scant dark hair on his knuckles, sleek jet hair, his black slacks, pinstripe-on-white long sleeved shirt, thick mustache, and deep-set onyx eyes. The way he touched the napkin to his lips between bites. Oh, and the lips. Ay-ay-ay. The way he intermittently talked very quietly on his cell phone. A businessman, possibly. Rugged, swarthy, yet very refined. Classy. My character.
Maybe, if you’re a writer, you understand how the stranger might not have looked like my character, yet he was the essence of him. Perhaps you’re a reader and you get what I mean about seeing people in your daily life who are the exact personifications of characters you’ve read. Right down to the clothes on their backs.
To me, everyone is a character or a potential one. It’s a delicious plague so many writers suffer—the perpetual ‘casting’ for characters in everything we do, everywhere we go.
My friends know that I ‘see’ many, many of my characters in my everyday life. They may even secretly think I’m loco, but they tolerate me and my ‘gang’ of fictional beings. You know the kid in the movie who ‘sees dead people’? Well, I see fiction people. Alive and breathing.
But what a surreal experience to have your ‘creation’ walk right into your life, into the very atmosphere you wrote for him, and carry himself exactly as you painted him. What a wonderful rush. What an affirmation that your imagination is more right-on than you ever dreamed, to see that fantasy fleshed out.
And understand that I mean this type of happening for me goes far beyond looks or appearance, although that plays a huge part, too. But the spirit of the character is SO intense that I feel their aura, and recognize them—in this particular circumstance, before I even saw his face.
This consequently causes me to wonder just how much CHARACTER do we actually put in our characters? Writers talk all the time about the people in their heads who speak to them, urge to be put on paper. And I can vouch that DOES happen. But I think—no, I KNOW—we pour something that cannot be explained into every character we write that transcends the mere fleshing out, some ingredient that really, truly brings them to life. Something so strong and beautiful that we recognize them when we pass them on the street.
I couldn’t help but consider this fabulous experience an extra push from my Latino-Italian-Continental-loving-fool-for-dark-haired-men muse to get my procrastinating ass in gear and finish my beautiful hero’s story.
And I’ll be damn if I didn’t finish my book this week. Something about this incident, this brush with the embodiment of my protagonist, filled me with such passion for my book, for my character, for his story, that my fingers could not type fast enough, and I feverishly plodded until the very last word was typed.
Damn, oh, damn, how I love this kind of thing. Like I said, I see characters in everyone, stories in every place I go. Most writers do. But how precious to have the actual character step out of my imagination and right into my real world. A reverse process of sorts: instead of from my brain to the paper, he steps from the paper to my real life.
Having seen this man in this restaurant still gives me chills, and I cherish the memory.
My only regret was that, when this man left, I wasn’t able to see if he—by some fantastic coincidence—drove away in the same black Mercedes my character drives. I’ll pretend he did.