In the last couple of weeks I’ve revisited Les Miserables. I do this every now and then because the story is rich and the music is beautiful and, while supremely tragic, it confronts a profound reality that forces me to stop and think about my life.
Each time I revisit the story I find myself connecting with a different character, be it the greedy inn-keeper or the criminal on the run or the single-minded officer, and each time I sit back and ask myself how I can make such vivid, real characters in my own fiction.
This time, however, I came to the conclusion that I can’t make such characters because I am unwilling to break my own heart.
For example, Fantine and Cosette.
As a mother, I can’t imagine being separated from my child for any real length of time. The very idea squeezes something in my chest and I have to shove it away. Moreover, as a daughter I cannot imagine losing my mother while she is so far away.
It hurts to even think about it.
Comparatively speaking, I have lived a very charmed life. My parents may be divorced, but they are both alive. I may be a single parent, but my son is healthy and strong and full of adventure.
How then does someone whose life has been so blessed even begin to settle into the mindset of a character who has had none of these things? How do I push past the heartbreak to really hear the character and what they have to say?
Beyond my own cowardice at living in so dark a place for the length of time it will take to write this sort of character, there is a fear that I will get it wrong.
Rather than writing a character whose tragedy draws readers into the same introspective state that Les Miserables manages to give me, I fear that if I attempt writing this way that my own pity for these characters will shine through and thus cheapen the whole experience.
Yes, what happens to Fantine is pitiable, but you never lose sight of who she is in the story.
And that’s the balance I am trying hard to find as an author. I need to be able to confront the ugliness of the world without losing the beauty in the people. And in order to do that, I have to put my big-girl pants on and be brave enough to break my own heart.