Allison K. Pittman is the author of the popular fiction series Crossroads of Grace. With Endless Sight, book three of the series, released in May, and her newest devotional, highlighting stories based on her personal experience with animals, releases this month.
“Are you anything like your characters?”
The question is inevitable. Whether it’s a radio interview or a conversation with a reader, somebody’s going to want to hear about a connection between the living, breathing author, and the personas in the pages.
I usually brush this question off with a smile. After all, my major characters are nineteenth-century prostitutes, so, um, no. Not really. That’s the easy answer, but not a completely honest one. In some ways my characters are so much a part of me that admitting it outright would be akin to sitting through my first Oprah interview in my bathing suit. Embarrassing, painful, and much, much more than any of my readers want to know.
Of course there are the innocuous similarities. Gloria (Ten Thousand Charms) and I both have unruly, curly hair—although hers is the obligatory, safety-net blond. And Belinda (With Endless Sight) received my overlapping teeth and my inability to remember scripture references. Her cousin Phoebe has my sarcastic mouth and vivid imagination.
After that, well, we start cutting a little closer.
Read through my pages and you’ll see that I’m a woman who knows what it feels like to be insecure in her faith, breathless in rebellion, frightened and lost, clawing her way back to God’s embrace and weak with gratitude for his grace. You’ll see a person who admires the spiritually strong just as much as she envies them. Writing Christian fiction gives me the opportunity to not only strip the façade away, but to repackage it and weave what’s left behind into stories of impossible bravado.
We talk a lot about “voice” in this business of writing. At a workshop I gave on the subject of Point-of-View (“POV with Purpose”) I made the point that, as fiction writers, we need to be willing to set our own voice aside. We need to create a clear and distinct voice for our POV character—whether first or third-person. We have to step back as “author” and breathe life into “narrator.”
Not everybody agrees with me, and that’s fine, but I do know that I’ve worked hard to create that distinction. I don’t think any of my novels would have quite the same impact if I wrote them in my voice, because that would give them a narrator mired in weakness and vulnerability. As it is, I can take that jelly-like core of insecurity, wrap it up in petticoats, give it the body of a woman who knows when to shake her fist and stamp her feet, and watch it become still and settled as it’s infused with her strength.
Which is what made my first offering of non-fiction so terrifying.
In Saturdays with Stella, I tell the story of the spiritual lessons I learned when I took my dog Stella through a six-week obedience training class. To make a 176-page story short, while Stella was learning to obey her master (me), I was learning to obey my master (God). I couldn’t talk about Stella’s rebellion without talking about mine, too. My sins and shortcomings were just as integral to the story as hers.
How absolutely terrifying. All those pages of me—completely bare. Stripped of dialogue and setting and subplots. Oddly enough, there’s a jolt of freedom that accompanies that terror. Like a huge sigh of relief knowing you’ve conquered some fear. I think that’s what it must feel like to jump out of, well, anything. The really exciting part—so exciting it almost trumps the terror—is knowing that, when people connect with me in Saturdays with Stella, they’re connecting with the real me. Immediately. No bureaucratic fiction middle-man.
In the end, though, what really matters is not how well we the authors identify with our characters, but how well our readers do. I’ve been blessed with having a lot of wonderful reviews posted about my books (and one real stinker…) but one of my favorite phrases comes from an Amazon.com review for Speak Through the Wind where Kelly Klepfer writes: I see myself in Kassandra’s story. No, I’ve not lived the life of a prostitute. But I have swallowed Satan’s lies and made some pretty ugly messes that God had to clean up. I’ve not sold myself for money, but I’ve sold my self-respect to gain a friend, or my common sense to feel a little better for a brief moment.
Apparently all those plots and pouts and petticoats fall away when it comes down to what really matters. Instead of fretting about that line between my fiction and my non-fiction, I’ll just continue to hack away at myself—little bits and pieces between my lines, all of it drawing me a little closer to my readers.