What running taught me about character resonance

Find the resonance in your characters

Deutsch: Boot in Nova Scotia

fishing boat

I hate running. I really do. Some runners anticipate a good run with eager legs. Not me. I hate every step, each landing of foot on the pavement, every breath I drag in and expel in quick, uncoordinated bursts.

I’m not a good runner either, but two years ago something happened that sent me out into a frigid March morning in Nova Scotia, wearing cheap sneakers and raggedy sweatpants.

My husband had his first real and frightening MS event then. You need to understand: the 23 years I’ve known this man, he’s been a hearty and hale, strapping, no-holds-barred, forearms-like-Popeye’s fisherman. In Nova Scotia, no less — that means he fishes for lobster in the dead of winter. Think Deadliest Catch on a smaller scale but no less dangerous.

I was terrified. You can imagine. While I joked about my new running routine to everyone who knew me and knew exercise of any form was my sworn enemy, I knew each time I laced up my sneakers and pulled on a hat and earbuds, as much as I hated it, it was saving me.

I was running away the only way I could.

Running became for me a living metaphor. I’m sure many folks wouldn’t have grasped the analogy. Some people I knew assumed I ran because all of a sudden I was the one in the marriage who absolutely had to stay healthy because now one of us was down.

True, but not true.

As a character driven writer, I grasped this little activity on a level that connected with my writing. Like many writers, I’m always on the lookout for interesting pieces of introspection, for experience, for great characters. I knew my own imaginary friends often acted and reacted in ways that they couldn’t/shouldn’t/ and haven’t explained to themselves, let alone to the reader.

I knew I was running — or running away — and even as I slapped sneaker to pavement, in every hated moment I knew every one of my characters was running away too. The difference was that now I understood this on a much more complex level than I did before. Now I knew why J sought out a beating in Anomaly even though J couldn’t and would never explain it even if he did realize it. I knew why Olivia sought out an abusive lesbian lover In The Secret Language Of Crows, why Luke in One Insular Tahiti hated to come home to the woman he loved.

These little things were never really explained in the novels in an overt way and I know it undoubtedly bothered some readers, but I also knew the explanations weren’t missing pieces of introspection, they were intimate details about my character’s psyches that they couldn’t or wouldn’t divulge to themselves or anyone else.

The human psyche is so complex that we don’t always know why we do/say/think the things we do, and if we want to build real flesh and blood characters, there’s always things within their psyches that they don’t want to reveal either. Not flat out. Not overtly.

Sometimes we do things we hate under motivations we don’t understand, and as writers, I think we owe it to our readers to let them put a little of their own psyches in the evolution of each character they read and want to identify with.

I think only then can we achieve resonance with our readers in a way that is lasting and authentic.


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Thea Atkinson is a writer of character driven fiction.

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Posted in Thea bits
8 comments on “What running taught me about character resonance
  1. […] remember my post about running, right? Well, it was only half the […]

  2. Sheila Hurst says:

    It’s good to hear that we don’t always have to explain our characters away or know why they did something. Since I usually don’t understand everything I do, it makes sense that the same can be said of our characters. I hope your husband gets better. A friend of mine has MS and has been able to overcome it a bit by eating mostly organic health foods.

  3. Thea- very sorry to read of your husband’s difficult health issues.I have two female friends who have struggled-often daily- with MS.For many writers the world over, writing is a wonderful form of escapism that allows us to soar while staying very grounded in our lives.I enjoy tremendously your well-constructed insights on writing; I find them to be very helpful. Now that I understand your motivation behind your own characters,it helps me to understand some of the issues that I find in my own characterization.I love it when the characters I’m writing(or reading about) step off the page and come alive.Wonderful post this morning.Have a great weekend in southwestern Nova Scotia.

    • Susan:

      You have made me feel all warm and fuzzy. Thanks so much for your comments and your support. I’m glad you’ve found some of my lil posts interesting and useful. I too learn everyday from writers everywhere and I think it’s important for us to pass on info when we find it and to thank those who have helped. Your post reminds me of some very important writer mentors and i’m off to send them a quick email.


  4. Diane Tibert says:

    Humans have such strange and unusual behaviour. Some simply can’t be explained. And to try and explain such reasons in a novel can narrows the connection with readers. In other words, if too many specifics are given, people can say, “No, that’s not me.” and not be as connected to the character. Whereas if some things are left unanswered, readers will fill in their own experiences.

    Great thought process. I hate running, too. I hate exercise. It never worked for me. So I stopped exercising completely (though I still like yoga) and took up farming. I lost 25 pounds in four months and regained some muscle I had before children.

    Thanks for linking to Hattie’s book lauch on my blog. Hattie’s a wonder lady who has many more books planned.

  5. Viv says:

    Oh golly.
    Yes, I know these things. Maybe it is why I found such resonance in your books.
    been there, got the scars (literally)
    hugs and a high five for being so awesome.

    • Vivienne:

      I love the way you make me feel supported and encouraged. The indie community is great for that, but you are especially present when it comes to encouragement. Thankyou

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