When I start writing a story, I have a character or two in mind. In theory, I decide what they look like and how they act. I decide their childhood details – even if many of those never make it to the story. I decide how they are received by the other characters. Are they popular or pretty? That’s up to me. Except when it’s not.
There have been many times where my characters have taken over after a bit and written their own narratives. I still have to hold the pen, but they are quite adamant about their feelings on certain attributes I have given them. It’s like I hear them saying I would never do that! I could ignore them. I hold the pen, after all. But I’ve learned that the character is usually right. If they don’t ring true, no one will care about them or their story.
It’s one thing for me to have them do something out of character, but I need the reader to know that it’s out of character. Those things have to serve a purpose. Growth, change, a signal to another character that something is wrong, that sort of thing. No matter what it is, it has to make sense. It has to be real.
When I think about myself as a character in my own story, I realize there are people out there who have tried to write my narrative. They tell others my story, but they put their own spin on it. They believe they hold the pen. They do not. And rewriting my story is simply a distraction away from them editing their own. It serves no purpose other than that. The tricky part is making sure they never have access to my pen.
When we let others define us, we give them the pen to write our story. We allow their perceptions of us – real or imagined – to become our reality. We act accordingly because we believe they are in control. That they know our story better than we do. But the pen is ours. The story is ours. Even if you can’t physically take it back, wait until it runs out of ink and get your own pen. But don’t let anyone else write your narrative.
Years ago, I was out on a date at a now-closed, once-popular Italian restaurant. The restaurant had a trolley car in the center of the dining area that was on a different level from the tables around it. My date looked up from our table and noticed an elderly man dining alone in the trolley car. My date immediately wrote that man’s narrative as being sad and lonely. To my date, this man was a widower and eating alone because he had no one else in his life. My date saw his grandfather in this man and immediately established feelings of pity and sadness. In fact, he wanted to go interrupt the man’s dinner to ask him to come sit with us.
I, on the other hand, had a different narrative for Mr. Dining Solo. I imagined a man who had sought the solitude of this restaurant so he could dine in peace. I imagined his house overrun with grandchildren and relatives from out of town. It was close to Thanksgiving, so there was some basis to my assumption. He was sick of turkey and tears. And I talked my date out of interrupting this man’s well-deserved solitude.
Ever since that day, I have been reluctant to dine solo. I don’t want anyone worrying about my party of one. No one worries about you being alone at a coffee shop. The assumption is that you are there for coffee and the free wifi. But apparently, if you show up stag to dinner at a nice restaurant, people are whipping out their pens to write your narrative for you. Loser, party of one, your table is now available.
So if I do go, I bring a journal and write the whole time. I could write on my phone app, but that just makes it look like I’ve been stood up and am frantically texting my missing date for an answer on why he hasn’t showed up yet. If I take a journal, I find that eveyone assumes I’m a food critic and I get much better service. If people are going to rewrite my narrative, I’m going to make sure it will at least be to my benefit.
The reality is, while there may be people like my date that night, most people aren’t even remotely interested in my dining status. Or anyone else’s, for that matter. They are far too focused on their own stories to pick up a pen and start writing someone else’s narrative over an order of coconut shrimp. But even if they were attempting a rewrite, we control our pens. Mr. Dining Solo was oblivious to my date’s assumptions about him. He wasn’t sobbing into his salad. He was just enjoying his bread and pasta like everyone else. His pen was tucked safely away. His story was his own.