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Characters: A Memoir
When I was fourteen, I went crazy.
From twelve to fourteen was all a bit of a blur. I was homeschooled, I had no friends, I started ballet, I worked my first job. We found a church but shortly after ended up leaving it. I was drifting. The feeling was familiar as I'd done it my whole life. But before I'd moved across the country to North Carolina I hadn't needed friends because I had my siblings. They were fine. Annoying, but I could live with them. In high school, friends began to matter. My sisters got annoying, my brother broke out of his shell and turned into a royal pain in the ass.
That's when Michael came.
If he had been real, it would have been very romantic, really. I had a dream that I married him and I'd met him in ballet class. I could barely see his face; I didn't even know what color his eyes were. But I knew he was kind and sweet and funny, and he thought I was beautiful, and that was enough for me.
Those first few weeks after that dream were confusing. I didn't know how to develop a character, so I didn't do a very good job of it. I'm now much better at taking my pieces of visions and turning them into people that readers can relate to, but at that time, he was just an empty character with no personality and no name.
I eventually learned to define a character. I learned I had to talk to him to figure out what he was like. Naming him helped. I picked random names I liked and then one day, he responded to Michael.
I tried talking in my head, but he didn't answer. I couldn't figure out why he woulnd't talk to me. I know now that Michael is a very reserved man. He only opens up to select people. Lezlianne, a friend of his from school, was one of them. Beth was the other, but I didn't find her for years.
I found that if I sat down and stared at Michael long enough, he'd stare back. So I'd lock myself in my room or in the bathroom and stare at a blank wall until he'd show up and stare back. Then we'd start talking. First we'd whisper about boring small talk, like what he did as a kid, and what he wanted to do in college. Then we started talking about what happened to him that day, and the classes he'd taken, and the progress he'd made, and his rehearsals, and Lezlianne and her story and her life. "I don't know why she dates that jerk," Michael complained one day. "He doesn't love her and she could do so much better."
"She's in a disastrous relationship, Michael. You need to help her out of it—she won't listen to me." Apparently Lezlianne's boyfriend wasn't very nice to her.
"She won't listen to anyone."
"She listens to you." I whispered. And she did. Lezlianne and Michael had been best friends for years. They were like brother and sister. Sometimes I was a little jealous of them—but then whenever Michael sensed my jealousy or discomfort he'd throw me a sweet enchanting smile and ease all my fears about being replaced or rejected.
But then he started talking to me, about me. It wasn't just us talking about his life, or his friends. He was talking about my life—my real life, things that really happened. That was weird at first, because in the back of my mind was always the thought "you realize you're talking to someone who isn't real…" but he was talking to me, and he was listening to me, and he was really the only one who did at the time. He was always available to listen and he didn't get tired of me, so I kept talking and he kept listening. I'd tell him all sorts of things, like things that happened that day in school or ballet class, or things I wanted to happen tomorrow. Even the things I needed at Wal-mart. And he always listened.
Then things got stressful. The voices had sort of always been there, but I didn't think they were a big deal, so I told my mom about them. She'd first thought it was the blood going through my ears, a ringing sound that I'd mistaken for voices. But a few months later they weren't getting any better and I told her about them again.
It was always the same feeling, usually at night, when I was alone in my room, or in the bathroom waiting for Michael to come. My vision would fade in and out. The sand on my brain started again. It felt like sand dribbling from a two-year-old's clutched hand into the hole in the top of my skull, seeping down into my brain and running out my eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It gathered and clumped on the top of my tongue, and the roof of my mouth was scratchy. I saw colors behind my eyelids or felt bubbles of color popping over my eyes.
The voices didn't say anything really. It was just sounds. Like walking into an airport. They got louder as I approached the terminal and then they all fell on me at once.
And when I told my mom that, she started to take me seriously. Every once in a while she'd look around her to make sure nobody was listening and say, "Are the voices still there?"
I'd always say, "Yes mom. They are."
And I didn't really know anything about them, and they scared me.
My sophomore year of high school, I took a biology class with a group of homeschoolers who all needed a life science and a lab to put on their transcripts. I had loved biology in sixth grade when I'd gone to school in California, but even after the first few minutes in this class, I could tell it was going to be horrible. Michael and Lez stood in the corner of the ceiling and watched me for emotional support.
Then my life changed again, because Voldemort came in.
Well, his name wasn't Voldemort. It was something else. For the sake of anonymity, we'll stick with it. He ended up as Voldemort in my many diary entries about him, because I'd call him 'you know who.'
Voldemort was another student (a real boy, not like Michael) who was taking the class. He came in looking all sexy and beautiful and sat down across from me, snatching my breath away with his wicked smile and dark eyes. He had black curls cut short against his head and eyes the color of dark chocolate. He was just beginning to grow into his face and look more like a man than a boy. He had a wide grin and white teeth like his white skin.
I could hear Lezlianne and Michael laughing from the corner of the ceiling, and I wanted to glare at them. When nobody was looking, I shot them both mean expressions. Michael hovered over and whispered in my ear. "He's cute."
I shook my head and didn't say anything. Not cute, I was thinking to myself, and I knew Michael could hear me. I added as an afterthought, We have different words to describe guys like that.
"It's OK if you like him, you know. Remember, I'm just a voice in your head."
"No you're not," I whispered to make him feel better, and then my face fell as I realized what I'd done.
I'd just made Michael real.
Voldey and I had a weird relationship. I couldn’t really be his friend because I carpooled to the class with Susan, and Susan and Voldey hated each other (but secretly liked each other, and only I knew). But when I was his lab partner for the day, or when we ended up sitting next to each other, I was nice, and I didn't roll my eyes at him, and I didn't pretend he was an idiot, and laughed at his jokes and made my own. He'd flirt with me once in a while and, like the clueless sophomore that I was, I didn't realize he had until later that day when Michael or Lez explained it. And when I talked to him, I completely forgot about the two ballet dancers standing in the corner of the ceiling.
They'd always tease me about it later, though.
"Oooh! She was talking to him again today!" Lezlianne would come bouncing in the room and interrupt Michael and me in our conversation.
"I'm being replaced," Michael would complain, just to get me to argue with him. I'd assure him that nothing would come of it and that he was still my favorite, and he'd smile his wide warm smile and his clear blue eyes would get a bit of a twinkle in them.
But at the end of that year, Voldemort and I had a random argument, and for the next three years, he didn't talk to me. We ignored each other studiously, and pretend we didn't notice the other when both of us knew the other was there. Once in a while we'd find that we were in the same room because of mutual friends, and we simply didn't communicate unless we had to, and when we did we would pretend that none of the awkwardness and ignoring had ever happened. It was the most infuriating thing. I didn't go to Wal-Mart at certain times for fear of running into him because I knew he worked there. He gave me a fair share of gray hairs.
The other source of gray hairs was the fact that my depression was beginning to come through as more than crabbiness or an occasional bad day. All the women in my family have a history of depression, and my mood swings were more than PMS. Mom was getting worried about the voices again. I didn't tell her they'd gotten worse because I suspected she'd make me see a shrink. Eventually that fear was confirmed. About six months later, she did make me see a doctor who told me I needed to take drugs to make the weird sandy bubbly voices go away.
But by that time, they had become the only thing that kept me sane. It's weird to try to understand it, but the insanity that made me unique was what kept me busy and occupied. Listening to the voices gave me something to do late at night when I couldn’t sleep or when I wasn't creative enough to have a conversation with Michael or Lez. I'd lay as still as I could and listen to them and when they became too much, I'd move or cough or do something to get them to go away. I kept waiting longer and longer to see how much I could take, like a test of endurance. I'd listen to them until I fell asleep. I now know the weird feeling I was having was the beginning of a REM disorder, a sleep disorder where the individual slips into a dream state while still lucid or, in my case, fully awake. The grains of sand drizzling through my body were paralysis chemicals sent from my brain, seeping into my bloodstream to keep me from moving during the REM disorder. Jerking myself or making noise would make them dissolve and fade. But at the time, all I knew of it was sand. I still don't know what the voices are, but some people say it's just creativity working overtime. They don't scare me and they do still keep me company late at night.
A few months passed, and Michael and Lezlianne became a little more intrusive. It got to the point where they were everywhere I went. I'd talk to them, sometimes out loud, and Mom would hear me and ask what I'd said. My sisters would catch me muttering to myself or laughing at something, and give me weird looks.
Then one day I told my Mom about Lezlianne. Not Michael, though. Never Michael. I could never tell mom I loved a man who wasn't real.
Mom told me I should kick Lezlianne out. I knew she was right because by that time, I would sit in my room and talk to these friends for hours before I realized all my time was gone. I fought with the decision for a long time, but eventually I told Lez she needed to go away, and I told Michael I didn't love him.
It hurt horribly: I'd lost and hurt the only real friends I had. I felt their pain and I felt my own. I felt guilty that it hurt so badly, because I knew they weren't real to begin with, and the depression made it worse. I cried for several days. Every time Michael knocked or Lezlianne poked her head through the door I'd tell them to leave and slam the door on their faces. But they were persistent. They never totally left. I'd go days without thinking about them and then one of them would show up, or I'd just start talking to them and then realize they weren't there.
And then I found the secret to getting characters to leave me alone so I could have peace of mind, but not killing them off so they didn't exist. I wrote a book about Michael, Lezlianne, and a Victoria who was myself. I had to make it Victoria and not me, because I had to give the characters to another person and not keep them for myself. I became their creator, not their friend. Mysterious Ways, the book I'd written, had no plot and no climax and no development, but I wrote it and it worked.
I never finished it. I stopped working on it when they left me alone and started hanging out with Victoria instead; and Victoria never once bothered me, because she was a part and another version of myself.
Michael and Lezlianne were gone. For a while, anyway. I use that trick to this day. It's the reason I write my books.
Voldemort became my character Brett about the same time Lindsay showed up. It was a year after the biology class, shortly after kicking Michael and Lez out of my life. The name Agent Smith Smith popped into my head and Lindsay showed up out of nowhere, standing in front of me with her feet apart and her hands on her hips and said, "Hey. So that stalker? He really needs to go." She then sat me down and stood across from me and started telling me the beginning of her story, barely giving me time to write everything she said down in my journal. She then disappeared with a smirk and said, "You work on that much. I'll be back when you're done." And then she dissolved into thin air and reappeared in the corner of my mind, where she sits and smirks and adds obnoxious commentary to my life to this day.
Lindsay was an instant character, the kind that jumps into your head and is instantly developed and completely takes over your life. I knew right away she was just like me but twice as obnoxious, had some weird abilities that made no sense and could only be described as clairvoyant, and she was really sexy. She was five feet and ten inches tall, lean and strong, had straight brown hair down to her waist, bright green eyes, and a twisted little smirk on the side of her mouth. I knew Brett adored her so he followed her around until she fell in love with him. Brett looked and acted just like Voldemort: tall, pale creamy skin, black messy curls, and a delicious smile. The only thing I changed were the color of his eyes: I made them cobalt blue. And I made Brett nicer than Voldey.
I started writing the Agent Smith Smith series, a young adult romance science fiction crime thriller—probably the only book on earth with that complicated blend of genres. I was about a quarter of the way through when my life got really exciting again—because Michael showed up. He was over forty, he had never been the dancer from my dream, but he was still Michael. His light brown hair still hung softly over his forehead, but it was turning grey. His smile still made my heart sing, but he had a dozen smile lines on his cheeks and forehead. And of course, his eyes were the same clear sky blue.
Michael loved Lindsay fiercely, like a father. About two years later I found out that Michael had loved Lindsay's mother years before Lindsay was ever born, and when she'd been born Michael was the one who took her away to keep her safe from her psychopath father.
But Michael was no longer my dominant character. Brett had taken over my mind. We spent a lot of time together, and when we were together, I was Lindsay, not me. It kept him from becoming too real to me and it helped me get inside Lindsay's head so I could write her interior monologue properly.
Michael doesn't blame me for kicking him out of my life for a while, because he knows I had to give attention to my other characters. Lindsay doesn't mind me becoming her, because half of the things that happened to her never would have happened if I hadn't. And Lezlianne doesn't mind having a new name assigned to her in a totally different series that Michael isn't even a part of, because she gets to be Maddie, the girl everyone loves, and has another sweet boy wrapped around her finger. Brett and Lindsay and Alex and Jacob and Sophie and Mark wouldn't be my friends now if it wasn't for Michael going away for a while. And now there's a piece of him embedded in the Agent Smith Smith series so everyone else can enjoy him—because he is truly wonderful. I have days I wish I'd never met him because I wanted him to be real so badly, but I have other days where I'm so grateful that I do have him, because if I didn't, I really wouldn't have anyone.
Do I call him an imaginary friend? I used to, when I thought that was what he was. But I call him a character now, like I do with all my other characters, and he likes being a character, and I like writing his story.
Every time I tell someone about my characters, they respond in one of two ways—they think I'm crazy, or they think I'm cool. The crazy ones keep me at arms distance and stare at me awkwardly whenever I laugh at one of Lindsay's obnoxious jokes. The cool ones grin and ask, "What did she say?" and they aren't afraid of having conversations with my characters and using me as a telephone.
My poor mother still isn't sure if I'm cool or crazy.
But writers understand it all. They understand the compulsion to write a character's story, they understand the awkwardness when they mention a voice in their head to someone who doesn't have characters, and eventually they learn not to tell people about it because it tends to scare them away. But I have learned that if I am ashamed of my characters, they won't talk to me. And I could never bear to lose Jacob or Brett or Sophie or any of the others. So I no longer keep them a secret—they are as much a part of my life as my living breathing friends.
And if people are scared of my characters, they aren't worth having as friends anyway.