People ask me how I create the characters when writing a novel. I used to reply that they are inside me and talk to me and let me know what they want to do. I was careful not to say that the voices tell me what to do. I had said that before, and the looks I would receive made me nervous. I envisioned having to write from within institutional walls.
When I meet a person, I am naturally inquisitive. I have been getting to know a man fast becoming a friend. The other night I was unconsciously probing him for details of his life history when suddenly he stopped me. He laughed and said, “Wait a minute. You are a writer. I am not telling you another thing. You steal people’s lives. I know what you are doing.”
I had never given recognition to this habit of mine to soak up the stories of everyone I meet. He is absolutely right. He named it: I am a thief of lives.
I think people live in our hearts, not in our heads. The voices within us often are the voices of friends, lovers, strangers, people who have been lucky, and people who have been murdered. For some of us, these voices compel us to write so we can show how their lives have impacted us.
I met Israel in Mexico in 2009. As I explain in my novel, The Z Redemption, we became good friends. We had the relationship of an older man and a young man sharing with each other phases of life that were years apart. He was a fun companion to work out with in the gym, to discuss investments with, and to share a beer with his roommate. Then he got murdered in a horrible way by a drug cartel, and Israel had nothing to do with drugs. He was truly an innocent.
As painful as this was for me, this probably did not compare to the pain and fear that his roommate experienced afterwards. Israel and he were the same age, they were close friends, Israel was dead, and then suddenly the roommate was in danger. He moved out of his condominium quickly and did not tell me or anyone in the complex where he went.
After I had experienced the worst of my own grief, I wondered what would it be like for Israel’s roommate. Suppose that they had grown up together and that they had shared their life’s experiences? I have such a friend who shares my entire life up to my present age. What if he were suddenly gone? How would I feel? What would I do?
I did not know much about Israel’s childhood or even in what city in Mexico he had grown up. I would have eventually known all that. I knew even less about his roommate, but for some reason the voice of the roommate shouted from within the cavities of my heart. He wanted to tell the story of Israel. This is how Enrique Santos was born. He became a major character in The Z Redemption. He screams the pain of losing his soul mate friend, Israel, who owned a huge chunk of his heart and who was a spur for the more slowly maturing Enrique to try daring things.
So I invented childhoods for Israel and Enrique in Mexico City. I knew what qualities they had as people. What would be experiences that would mold the character each possessed? I would get quiet sometimes and listen. They spoke to me from my heart, and I would write.
I hear writers sometimes say that the story just pours out of them from within and that they are surprised by what comes out. They have not yet realized that they are simply enjoying the schizophrenia of their hearts.