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The Tough Girl

“This came for you,” my mom said. The letter was from my step-sister. It arrived a few days after my father got our address. I hadn’t seen N. in months.

my step-sister and me

my step-sister and me

The letter wasn’t very long, and I remember only one sentence. How could you leave me in this house with her?

My 13-year-old step-sister talked back to grown ups, beat me up regularly, smoked, and kissed boys. I’d thought she could take care of herself. I’d thought she’d be happy I was gone.

Some characters you think are strong. You think they can face anything, but even the toughest has to have a weakness. I don’t want predictable characters but they can’t be unbelievable. Characters should surprise the reader and the writer but not ruin the story.

What characters have surprised you?

11 thoughts on “The Tough Girl

  1. I love that your step sister wanted you there, felt like you were her ally.

    And yes, almost all my characters surprise me at one point or many. It’s one of the things that make writing novels so wonderful.

  2. Shelly: yes!

    (I once wrote a story in which a character needed to get from one room to another but for various reasons — lacking authorization, whatever — couldn’t. The solution was obvious to me and I actually found myself repeating, with growing frustration, “Take her hand! Take her hand!” The kid wasn’t even hearing me, though, was getting more and more scared as he approached the door… Imagine my delight when all by himself, he reached out and yes, took her hand, passing through the door. I practically sobbed.)

    Like Rowena says, that acknowledgment from N. was kind of cool. I suspect she may subconsciously have understood the tough girl in you, and recognized and valued your form of toughness as a complement for hers.

  3. Sigh. I don’t suppose so. Nothing good may come from writing while settled, but that may not always mean anything good comes from being unsettled either. This is where I get stuck. I look at what I’ve written and sometimes I feel on edge, a twist in my gut, but I can’t tell if anyone else might feel that way–or if that means it is any good or I’m just weird.

    Okay… so enough with the insecurity. I’m going to go do laundry and think about what to write next.

  4. Frankly, I’m afraid of surprise, since I tend to assume the worst- though I know that can make for some hecka dull writing. So, I’ve had the opposite problem- not making things unsettled enough. I certainly feel unsettled by what you write here- I steel myself to read your posts. Our circumstances aren’t necessarily the same, but the feelings are the same- danger, loss, sadness, powerlessness. I think that’s why your posts are often painful to me- they bring up very real memories. I’ve come to realize that in my writing, I often seek positive, meaningful resolution and a place of safety, having had so little of that growing up or in my 20’s-30’s. I’d like to push myself to hang out in the unresolved, unsafe places more in my writing, but I think I will always be someone who ultimately works toward a larger meaning, something that gives both me, and the reader, some sense of grace. After all, I’ve been graced with the gift of writing, so maybe I can somehow use that to both show the darkness -If I can stay there long enough- and then, shine some light.

  5. I knew a guy once who juggled Slinkys as a hobby. It was unbelievable to watch him at work — or at play, maybe — with two or three of the things describing these big loops in the air, sometimes behind his shoulder or his back. Drops were rare.

    And then someone asked him how he did it. He fell apart. He might as well have been a scarecrow trying to accomplish the feat.

    You juggle Slinkys, too. Please don’t think too hard about it.

    (And btw, I never knew anybody who juggled Slinkys for real. But I needed someone who did that, just for a moment.)

  6. Sarah, I don’t like to be mean to my characters nor to my readers. I don’t set out to be dark. It used to drive me crazy when I’d hear someone say, “I’m a dark person.” I thought they were being a bit, well, silly. Posing. I wouldn’t say anything to them about it–because what do I know? If they think they’re dark, then I’ve no place to say otherwise.

    One friend wouldn’t finish reading my first novel because she said it scared her. Now, I still don’t claim it to be scary, but I was surprised. I looked back over the pages and tried to see why she thought that. I guess it is scary in a way but I have trouble realizing it.

    But JES, I won’t think about it too hard. I’d like to meet someone who juggles slinkies.

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