What my fictional character taught me.

Now that I’ve begun writing book 2, I’m beginning to realise how difficult it is to write about a protagonist who is completely opposite to the kind of person I am. The biggest temptation for any author is to base a character on herself. But how boring would that be if all characters thought/acted/ reacted in the same manner. What a dull set of books that would turn out to be!

My new heroine Vibha is plucky, daring and loves the thrill of adventure sport. And I don’t think I could honestly, hand-on-heart, describe myself in the same manner. I break out into a cold sweat at the thought of bungy jumping, sky diving and anything that requires me to step outside my comfort zone. Roller-coaster rides fill me with unbearable dread and theme parks hold very little interest for me. Given a choice, I would much rather sit in a cozy corner of my house with a steaming cup of coffee next to me and read one of the classics.

But how can I write convincingly about a character if I don’t understand how the character thinks? An opportunity to think and behave as Vibha would arose yesterday when I spent the day at Dreamworld amusement park on the Gold Coast, where I’m attending a work conference. Normally, whenever I’m at theme parks with my kids, I do the nice and easy rides (you know, like Wiggles World or Tea Cup) which allows you to gaze serenely at the world passing by. None of that turbulent tossing around of the more daring rides for me, thank you. But Vibha would pooh-pooh the idea of a teacup ride as ‘too easy’ and would set her sights on something more adventurous.

I stood at the base of the Tower of Terror, looked up at it and felt myself turn into jelly. It is one of the most frightening rides….a tiny steel shuttle that roars down the trail at 160 kms an hour. My knees buckled and my heart began pounding. ‘Go on, Nim, do it!’ my friends urged. I would have refused except suddenly it was as though Vibha, my fictional yet very real-to-me character, was whispering in my ears. “I would do it. You can do it, too”. And that was enough to snap me into action. If I didn’t go on the roller coaster ride, there was no way I could understand what that kind of thrill would mean to someone like my very headstrong character. And so, ten minutes later, I strapped myself into the little capsule. There was a loud roar…and slowly…the roller coaster began its thunderous journey….picking up speed and momentum with every passing second until finally we were suspended in mid air, looking down at the world below….Vibha would have cheered and whistled…but her poor author was reduced to a trembling mass of nerves and refused to keep her eyes open any more. I gritted my teeth, squeezed my eyes shut and began praying fervently. Why, oh why, had I got on this ride? Why wasn’t I in the nice, cozy coffee shop instead, sipping chai latte and eating carrot cake? But there was no time to fantasize about coffee and cake. Before I knew what was happening, the little steel shuttle was dipping and soaring and tumbling and roaring…It was exhilarating!!! Even though I took the coward’s way out and didn’t open my eyes once.

At the end of the ride, when we all got out, feeling numbed and yet in some way rejuvenated, I tried to calm my trembling heart. ‘Phew! What a journey!’ I mumbled to no one in particular.

Although the experience hasn’t miraculously and suddenly turned me into a dare-devil, it did teach me something. It taught me to overcome fear. It also taught me lessons about my own character’s personality make-up. I feel I have a slightly better understanding of Vibha today than I did before I got onto that roller-coaster. In my book, Vibha will try sky-diving, but her author takes a bow and draws a line there. No skydiving, bungy jumping for me, thank you very much. I will leave things like that to my characters. So, cheers to you, Vibha! If it hadn’t been for you and my need to understand you, I probably wouldn’t have overcome my fear of rides. Sometimes, a writer’s characters can be her finest teachers.

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