Breaking your characters with realism: The intersection of ultramarathons and writing fiction
It was a shitty, but awesome long run today.
Yeah, blink hard and read that again. I ran 6 miles, at a fair pace for me, in driving rain with 1-2” of standing water on the trail.
It was terrible.
And it was perfect.
Why? Because I slogged those miles out at a good pace with wet feet. And you know what I’ll have at MS50k this spring? That’s right, 25+ creek crossing and 7-9 hours of wet feet.
I’ve talked about the “pain cave” and why sometimes you have to run when it sucks. For those who don’t want to read the article, the TL;DR is that the race will suck, you will be in pain, and training your body is great, but if you don’t train your mind to push through the pain, you will not finish.
Ask me how I know.
But what does running through pain, foul weather and tough terrain have to do with writing? Everything. Tough running can, and likely will, break you. MS50k broke me back in 2016. I didn’t finish the full 50k, settling for a paltry 20k (12.4 miles for my non-metric friends). I was broken physically, mentally, and emotionally. Maybe cracked, not fully broken, but it’s taken a full five years to have the courage to try again.
Now think about your favorite characters, the ones who really mattered to you. Did Frodo simply walk into Mordor? Or was he tested, broken, and forced to rise again? A good character is one who is not only told “no,” but “hell no,” then kicked in the teeth for good measure. They’re the character we root for when we watched them come to the brink and faced with the choice to accept the inevitable yet rise against all odds.
And that breaking is where ultramarathons and fiction writing intersect. I love the adage, “write what you know.” Dear readers, let me tell you, I know what it’s like to be broken. To rise again. To stare into the void, see the eyes that stare back, and tell them to fuck off. And hot damn, when I put it into my writing, it’s some powerful stuff.
One of the problems is, how do you write a character that steps to the edge of the void without going there yourself? I would offer that more writers need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This isn’t a new concept and I’ve seen it on may TEDTalks or ultramarathon documentaries. (One of my favorite talks comes from David Goggins, who in addition to being a former Navy SEAL and Air Force TACP, is also an ultramarathoner. Yeah, he’s a bonafide badass.) You can do all the research in the world on a subject, but until you try and test yourself to the limit, how will you know what your characters feel?
Now, am I telling you to go get hit by a car, break your leg, break your heart, get shot, or attacked to know what it feels like? Hell no. Don’t be silly. But you can get adjacent to experiences. Need to know what the adrenaline rush feels like? Go do something exciting: bungee jumping, skydiving, hang gliding, or some other experience that’s equal parts fun and death-defying terror. Be uncomfortable.
Maybe your character is put into a painful experience and you need to be able to describe what it’s like. Find an activity that will drain you physically and make you hurt, but not injured. I, of course, advocate for a long run. Don’t just do the run; listen to your body. How do your legs feel? How does your mind feel about it? What does it feel like to be mildly dehydrated? What are you doing differently because you’re tired and achy? Make your character feel that, only amplified. Be uncomfortable.
And for the love of all you hold holy and dear, keep a notebook! I have a “Confessions from the Trail” notebook. I write my milage, the book ideas I got while running, and how I feel in the notebook. Later, when I need to write a character who is breaking or in pain, that’s my go to.Be uncomfortable and take comfort in that discomfort. As our grandparents would say, it builds character(s).
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