“Farewell” to My Characters?

I’ve been in many stage plays over the years. Some were good, some were bad. Yet in most cases, there’s an image I associate with the ending of such productions.

In most cases, on my level of theater, the actors help to tear down the set and clean up the venue after the last performance of a show. Then, about nine times out of ten there is cast party to celebrate the show. Unfortunately this is usually on a Sunday evening, and for most that is just not a optimum party time. Full attendance at this cast party is rare, because people need to get home and get ready for whatever their Monday is. For those that do come, there is always the hurried, awkward farewell to everyone when someone leaves. Eight weeks together on most night with such people getting ready to do a show to the best of your ability. (If you’re with a cast that gives a damn, that is.) Ups, downs, success, failures, meals, arguments, confusion, chaos and all such things shared in usually close quarters. Then, a burger and a piece of cake at someone’s house, and bingo, it’s all over. You’ll see most of those people again, but it will never be the exact same chemistry as it was for the production you just closed.

There’s a bit of a hole there, as you might imagine.

But the “last goodbye” I bid when a show closes is not to the cast or crew. It’s to the character I played. It’s not a complex thing. It almost always happens on my way home after the cast party. My drive home from the cast party is what I consider the last “official” action of a production I’m in, since when I left home that morning, the show was still on. And during this drive I often have an image in my head of the character I played in the show standing on the stage alone, and the vanishing, or fading away back into my imagination; their job complete. That’s when a production ends for me.

Sometimes this fading is sad. Sometimes it’s closer to neutral. And yes, a few times, I’ve been relieved when the character waves or nods goodbye to me and is on his way. Yet whatever I felt about the character or the show, that moment represents a “period” at the end of the sentence. I may play that character again in the future, (though this has not happen in my career yet) but it will not be the same. I will have changed, the cast mates will have changed and so on. A different version of the character will bid me goodbye after the show is over. That’s just the way it is.

Now, as the release of my novel, Flowers of Dionysus approaches, I have been wondering what saying goodbye to my characters will be like in this context, for surely it will not be the same as it is when I part with a character I played on stage.

It’s different for a novel than with short stories. At least so far it has been. In short stories, I can appreciate and like the characters I create, no doubt. But for me at least, my short fiction tends to be about the scenario and how characters react to it. We learn what we need to learn, but a short story is a passing glance from a slow moving or temporarily stopped train. The novel is being on that train. And I have been on this train fro several years now.

And of course maybe future novels will not feel like this to me upon their completion. I probably cannot take this long from now on to finish a novel as I did for this one. Still, there is a greater potential investment in characters in novels one writes than in short fiction.

But back to the departure of characters.

First off, I feel that right now in regards to the novel, I’m about to get in the car and drive home from the cast party. Though all edits are done, and the formatting for e-publishing is as good as complete and a cover is selected and the date is known, I still consider myself officially “writing” the novel in a way. The characters are in a sense still under my control, despite the fact that there will be no further major editing of the manuscript. (Nor minor edits, if I can help it.) Yet, until I push the button that makes the novel available for purchase, the characters feel like they are in my sphere or influence in a spiritual, if not literal sense.

The more I think of it, the more it may be the opposite of what I experience at the end of a play. In that case, as I said, everything is over, and the character goes away in a sense. But with a novel, one could argue that the characters are just about to exist fully for the first time! For when my novel is published, that will be that. I will remain the creator, but from then on out, the characters will belong to the reader. Whether 10 or 10,000 people eventually read my novel, those I have written into the novel, Matt, Centauri, Tanya and so on will spread through the imaginations of my readers like food coloring in a cup of warm water; they will swirl and sink and float and dance in endless unpredictable patterns within the minds and hearts of those that read about them. Their pasts, futures, clothing, the way they move about will differ depending on who is envisioning them. As an author I have described a good portion of what they are about, but I can never cover every moment and every nuance. My readers will fill that in.

So, when that happens, my job as author and creator is concluded. But unlike when my job as an actor in a play has concluded, the characters I created will only just begin their journeys: their many journeys.

I suppose in a sense the characters in the novel are packing their metaphorical bags these days, as they prepare to exist outside the imagination and drafts and files and muses of their author. They bustle about like a group on the final day the hostel is open, gathering stuff, looking for their hairbrush, making calls and getting ready to go. And I run the hostel.

Each of the characters are probably too busy to give me the full fledged, dramatic exit that the characters I play on stage have time to give me on my ride home from the cast party. The novel characters have a lot to prepare for after all…splitting into so many imagined versions of themselves and all, waiting to take up residence in the hearts and minds of readers. They may cast me a glance, or a smile or a wave in a quick moment though. Besides, like I said, they are not vanishing. A novel is forever in a way a play cannot be.

But it’s cool. Both they know and I know I am the author. There’s a mutual respect and gratitude there, even as they go out into the world. I’m content with that, I think. Any author should be, I dare say.

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