Turning Real People into Characters
Generating my characters was never hard, because they really exist. I write narrative non-fiction, adaptations of true military stories. The settings are predetermined, and the plots are part of history. Some of the dialogue is invented, events reordered for clarity, and occasionally two or more real people are merged into an amalgam. The goal is still to make the story as real as I can tell it.
My first book, Northwest of Eden, was my personal experience working as a trauma nurse in western Iraq. I told it in first person, so I was the main character. Each day after work, I would chisel the story based on the real happenings of the day and my reactions to them. I didn’t know exactly how the story would unfold, but there were incidents that I knew I would write about. For instance, I knew that some of the soldiers who came into the hospital would not survive their injuries. I didn’t know when it would happen, but I knew it would, so I wanted to record it.
The witnesses to that event had such intense reactions that I had to force myself to notice. Since I was also experiencing it, I had to articulate my own emotions onto the page as well. These were some of the most intense feelings I have ever had – shock, sadness, fear of inadequacy, and even some of the most intense anger and hatred imaginable. I had to write all of that for both me and for my supporting cast.
Here’s what I didn’t anticipate – ever have a character go in a direction that you didn’t plan? That’s sort of what happened with Northwest of Eden. I was experiencing emotions firsthand and trying to write about them, when I hadn’t yet processed them. The story ended up revealing character traits that I wasn’t aware of at the time. I didn’t realize until I was almost six years into the project that the story was about my own personal transformation, my crucible.
This epiphany triggered a 50% rewrite, which while frustrating, also allowed me to round out some of the other characters – bringing out emotions that I had glossed over. But again, there was something that facilitated this – I knew these characters personally, so I knew how they would react to fictional situations, as I had seen them in real ones.
My current work in progress is a six-part collection of real stories of an Army medic from each of the living wars. The protagonists are real people, so getting to know them before I write about them is paramount. They are veterans, like me, so we have some similarities. We are also very different. My oldest veteran is 87 and the youngest 21. One has vivid memories of Pearl Harbor just as haunting as my generation’s 9-11. Some went to war as parents, but most were children. My World War Two vet was fifteen when he exited a landing craft at Omaha Beach, D-Day, June 6, 1944. To him it is not a movie. It’s real.
Capturing that intensity and putting it into characters is easier in some ways and more difficult in others. I can dive deeper to catch a feeling or a motive, but I have no control over the result. The stories happened the way they happened, and while I can selectively include various scenes, there is seldom a traditional plot. War is like that. Few participants ever see any point beyond the myopic view of the battlefield of the day. Tomorrow’s will be different.
The challenge as an author is to create characters the reader believes are real people, with real fears, goals, and emotions. We write what we know, so often a protagonist is an autobiographical reflection. The next level is being able to write a character substantially different than yourself – a single parent, a crime victim, or a victim of mental illness. Imagine trying to write a character with opposing political views – he would have to think not the way you believe he thinks, but the way he actually thinks – to the extent that a member who shares those views would identify with him.
Go out and write those characters. Make them real. In the process, you might learn something about yourself.
Yancy Caruthers (1971- ) is an Iraq war veteran, registered nurse, and retired Army Reserve officer. After 9/11, he was mobilized to active duty three times, two of which were in a war zone. While he wasn’t off doing something with the Army, he worked on a helicopter ambulance service in southern Missouri, where he grew up. After leaving the service in 2008, he continued to serve his country as a diplomat assigned to tours in Peru and The Bahamas. He retired and returned to Missouri in July 2015, but is currently looking for things to keep himself busy.