Writer’s Notebook: Gnawed Hearts

Today I encountered this quote from French writer Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1819):

“I love men, not for what unites them, but for what divides them, and I want to know most of all what gnaws at their hearts.”

It struck me as an insightful mantra for character building. In college creative writing workshops, we were bludgeoned with Tolstoy’s famous quip about the uniqueness of unhappy families, but it never sat quite right in my mind. I never thought characters needed to be unhappy—a character consumed by her own misery is not guaranteed to be interesting. But give her desires and demons and dark little secrets that put her at odds with others (or even with herself) and you’ve got conflict, the driving force of any plot.

Apollinaire’s remark resonated in a scene I recently wrote for Blue Karma, where Logan and Amaya’s semi-romantic moment turns (not surprisingly) into a fight:

“If it was just me, maybe I’d be able to work something out. But I’ve got my sister. She can’t take care of herself, and nobody else is going to do it. I’m the only family she’s got, and she’s mine.” Despite the sentiment, Amaya’s voice held an edge of resentment. “So you do what you have to do for your family. Even poaching.”

The amber eyes—now so startlingly close to Logan’s own— found him and held him, burning. His beer-fuzzed mind took a moment to process her implication.

“Mel told you about that, huh,” he said at last.

“Well, you sure as hell didn’t. Getting all righteous on me when you’d stolen water, too.

“Righteous?” Logan said indignantly. “I’ve never said a damn thing to you about your poaching. I know what it’s like to be desperate and try something, anything, to get by another day. And I know what it feels like to pay for it. They gave me a choice: prison or the Polar Guard. I joined the Guard because I wanted to do something good for people instead of just rotting.”

“Yeah, hunting down ice boats and their engee crews is a sure path to redemption.” Amaya rolled her eyes.

“If I’m just part of the big evil corporation you think is taking all the water, why did you rescue me?” Logan demanded.

I try to let my characters surprise me, and these two are turning out to be more antagonistic than I expected. So much unites them: their survival instinct, their failed attempts to outsmart the water crisis, and their determination to protect those they love. And yet they always focus—okay, I as author-goddess make them focus—on what divides them. He thinks she’s selfish, she think’s he’s a hypocrite. Maybe “what gnaws at their hearts” is begrudging acceptance of how similar they are.

I’ll be taping this quote to the wall over my desk, to remind me that characters’ tooth-marked hearts are their most endearing feature.

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