Lyn Miller-Lachmann: Separating Writer from Character

Lyn Miller-LachmannLyn Miller-Lachmann is the former editor-in-chief of MultiCultural Review and the author of resources for educators and fiction for teens. Her young adult novel Gringolandia (Curbstone Press/Northwestern University Press, 2009), about a teenage refugee from Chile coming to terms with his father’s imprisonment and torture under the Pinochet dictatorship, was a 2010 ALA Best Book for Young Adults and received an Américas Award Honorable Mention from the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs. Her most recent novel is Rogue (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013), a Junior Library Guild selection. When she isn’t writing fiction, Lyn is the co-host of a bilingual program of Latin American and Spanish music, poetry, and history on WRPI-FM, a blogger, and a Lego builder. She reviews children’s and young adult books on social justice themes for The Pirate Tree. For more information and cool Lego pictures, visit Lyn’s website.

Many writers yearn to turn their life stories into fiction.

I avoided it. While I understood the advice “write what you know,” I couldn’t bring myself to write about the person I had been in middle and high school—the weird girl nobody liked, the one other kids teased whenever they got bored.

In general, downtrodden characters don’t make interesting or appealing protagonists (at least until they take action to change the situation), and I didn’t want to relive those years anyway. However, when I received my diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, seven years ago, I thought of all the young people today who face the social challenges and bullying that I faced decades earlier. I wanted to create a character like me, but one who fights back against the way others treat her in a way that I never did.

I started with an incident from middle school that still haunted me decades later. In seventh grade, I decided that I could become part of the popular girls’ group by sitting at their table at lunch. As soon as I set my tray down, all of the girls stopped talking. One of them stood and pushed my tray to the floor. I began to cry, and everyone around me laughed.

In Rogue, Kiara doesn’t just stand around crying. She picks up the tray and slams it into the girl’s face, thus getting herself suspended from school for the rest of the year. I wished I could have done that—both to get back at the girl who tormented me and to get out of going to a school I hated—but my parents were strict and they would have severely punished me. Kiara’s parents, on the other hand, are struggling economically, and her mother has to take a job in another city to support the family. Because her mother isn’t around, Kiara has a lot more freedom than I had to make decisions about her life—both good and bad.

Of course, Kiara isn’t me but a character I created, a character whose actions I control the way I control the actions, say, of a doll or a LEGO minifigure. However, characters tend to take on their own life in the story, as they interact with other characters and with the setting. For the first ten years of my life, I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in a sprawling city in the South, after which my family moved to an upscale suburb. Kiara lives in a working-class rural New England community across the river from a wealthier college town. Rogue takes place in 2006, long after my own middle school years.

These differences of setting and family situation helped me to separate Kiara’s story from my own. In addition, I wanted her to be bilingual and bicultural, which I am not (although I have a decent command of Spanish and Portuguese, acquired later in life). That is an important reason why she hasn’t yet been diagnosed at a time in which our awareness of Asperger’s and autism is much greater than it was when I was growing up. Her parents have their own difficulties communicating because her mother speaks Spanish primarily and her father only speaks English. People who aren’t aware of the research on bilingual language development might believe that growing up with two languages spoken at home led to Kiara’s temporary muteness in kindergarten (which happened to me as well in early elementary school even though I grew up in an monolingual household). At the same time, Kiara’s experience of two languages helps her to understand people and their emotions, as it did for me much later when I started learning Spanish in middle school.

For some of Kiara’s story, I had to do research because it wasn’t part of my experience. For example, while I appreciated the early X-Men for their focus on characters who were different and rejected by society, the lack of female role models meant I didn’t actually become a fan the way Kiara is. I had to do research to find out about the X-Men characters Rogue and Gambit because they didn’t exist when I was growing up.

Basically, I wove my experiences into the creation of my main character, but she isn’t me.  She isn’t even a twenty-first century version of me. She has taken on a life of her own, because she is the product of parents who are very different from mine, she lives in a community that is very different from mine, and the people around her with whom she interacts—like Chad and Brandon and Antonio—aren’t the people I knew when I was that age.

I wrote Rogue because I wanted some good to come out of my suffering in middle and high school. However, I didn’t want to present my experiences in the form of an autobiography or a memoir. My life was lonely and boring, and I didn’t make much effort to change my situation even when presented with the opportunity. At the same time, my status as an outsider looking into a world I struggled to understand and join honed my powers of observation and my imagination. I imagined what could have happened, say, had I picked up the tray and slammed it into my tormentor’s face. It took me decades to find my voice as a writer—what I consider my special power—but I know what it felt like when I did. I could transfer that feeling to my character, who finds a very different special power over the six-week time frame of the novel.

That is the advantage of fiction. The writer isn’t wedded to the truth. We can change the truth in service to the story. We should change the truth in service to the story, because the story always comes first. We can create characters that combine what we were like with what we wish we were like. If we didn’t make good choices, our characters give us a do-over. Our characters can make the spectacularly bad choices we didn’t make, face the consequences, and grow in the process of trying to recover or make amends. Finally, we can end our stories with hope, even if we didn’t discover that hope ourselves until many years later.

Cover for ROGUEThe poignant story of a girl coping with Asperger’s syndrome as she navigates the foreign territory of friendship…

Kiara has a difficult time making — and keeping — friends. She has Asperger’s syndrome, so relating to other people doesn’t come naturally. Most of the time, she relies on Mr. Internet — her go-to when the world doesn’t make sense, which is often — and her imagination, where she daydreams that she’s Rogue, one of the mutant superheroes of the X-Men. In the comics, Rogue hurts anyone she touches, but eventually learns to control her special power. Kiara hasn’t discovered her own special power yet, but when Chad moves in across the street, she hopes that, for once, she’ll be able to make friendship stick. She’s even willing to keep Chad’s horrible secret, if that’s what it takes. But being a true friend is complicated, and it might be just the thing that leads her to her special power.

5 thoughts on “Lyn Miller-Lachmann: Separating Writer from Character

  1. Thank you, Amy and Fida! I’ve long wrestled with whether I should have hit her with the tray. The pull of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants is strong, not only for the X-Men characters but also for anyone who has endured bullying and exclusion and wants to get back at those who have mistreated him or her. But I think there are ways of “getting back” that are constructive and needing to prove something can serve as a powerful motivation for achievement.

  2. Pingback: Put Out of the Pack | Lyn Miller-Lachmann

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