My heroine Paula in ‘Face the Music’ is a jagged little pill when we meet her. She’s put everything she has into making it as a professional dancer, and it hasn’t worked. She also has failed at relationships. She tells my hero Mike that she’s the girl who left: when something wasn’t working out, instead of staying and trying, beating her head against a wall of rejection, she’s just moved on. She thinks this is a character flaw (she is not blind to her actual flaws).
Mike - a person who’s been forced by circumstance to change his whole life - points out that when things aren’t right, you’re supposed to leave. “You’re not supposed to stay in a situation that isn’t working just because maybe magically one day it will start working.”
This is a case where a character is saying something I actually believe.
There’s a lot of me in all my characters, but none of them actually is me. So I try to stay out of it when I’m creating their dialogue, their thoughts, and their actions. If Character X is not me, then Character X is not going to think or speak or act exactly like me, right?
However … yeah. I’m the girl who left. There is a k.d. lang song titled “Trail of Broken Hearts,” and while that is a poetically exaggerated way to put it, I will cop to it. I have known a lot of great people (romantic partners or otherwise) and I have left a lot of them. In nearly every case where a significant romantic relationship was ending, I was the one who ended it.
In the case of my romances, it’s not because there was anything wrong with the guys (with one notable exception). A few of them - most of them, in fact! - were truly excellent human beings. I left because the situation wasn’t right. It was the wrong time, or the wrong place, or someone wanted (or needed) something that was functionally incompatible with what the other person wanted (or needed). For me to stay would have been for me to settle for a known quantity of disappointment and frustration, eventual resentment, and probably, eventually, inevitable failure as well.
It wasn’t just about me, either. I mean, it wasn’t necessarily MY disappointment or frustration or resentment that I could foresee. In nearly every case, the situation was wrong for me, but I was wrong for the guy. A man will put up with a lot from someone who is good company and not horrible-looking. But not everyone is able, or willing, to look deep into their own heart and say I am wrong for this person. I have never been as troubled as Paula, but I was also never easy. I am an introvert, I like things quiet, I’m completely disinterested in team sports, and I have very little patience with unfinished business. More importantly: I value my own time, and what I can do with it. I’m not willing to sacrifice much. That makes me the wrong partner for … a lot of people.
My feeling was always why drag this out. Because it’s never not going to hurt, and when you are a student, or when you are starting a career, every month (or year) spent in an unproductive situation can literally cost you. I didn’t have a lot of margin for error. I didn’t have a robust safety net. I could not afford to take a lot of chances. I could not afford to sacrifice, even if I had been willing.
So I gave Paula some of that history, off the page. I gave her the guilt and disappointment. And then I gave her someone who didn’t blame her for putting her own needs first.
That’s something I think a lot of us could use.