Some characters are easy to write: They’re just like us, so we understand them. Other characters take some hard work and serious research. Heather Demetrios certainly got some experience with the latter when writing her latest, I’ll Meet You There. Here, Demetrios chats with Bookish about the process of “getting in a character’s skin” and writing about a subject, PTSD, that is very close to her heart.
Whenever I sit down to write, I can hear the voice of one of my mentors, YA author A.M. Jenkins, in my head: get in his skin. This is a constant refrain of hers, a way of reminding me to stop narrating. Slipping inside your character’s skin is you, the writer, getting into the trenches with your protagonist and not leaving until your novel goes to print. Being inside someone’s skin is incredibly intimate, a blurring of the lines between reality and fiction, writer and creation. When you slip into your character’s skin, you’re crossing borders you never thought would be possible.
When I began working on Josh Mitchell, the Marine in my novel I’ll Meet You There, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Other than the fact that he’s a very masculine kind of guy, he’s also a Marine who just got back from a tour in Afghanistan where he lost his leg and several of his gun buddies. Josh has PTSD, phantom limb pain, and is now disabled. I have two working legs and would probably never make it through boot camp, let alone a tour of duty in a war zone. Both of my parents were Marines and my dad suffers from PTSD, but that’s about where my knowledge of Josh ended.
I was terrified to write this book.
Getting into Josh’s skin meant I’d have to go down memory lane with him and recreate some horrifying, heartbreaking incidents. It meant I’d have to face my father’s struggles with PTSD and what that meant for my family and me. More than anything, it meant that I had to get it right—every detail—because doing anything but that would dishonor not only my dad, but all the people who suffer from PTSD and have served in a war zone.
If you’re considering tackling a character whose life is so different from your own, it’s imperative that you do as much research as possible. There’s a reason why my acknowledgements at the back of the book are six pages long. Throughout I’ll Meet You There, there are several Josh-only segments: one to two page stream-of-consciousness sections where the reader gets in his head. I had to think of these as almost prose poems, where every single word counted even more so than in the rest of the novel. They are meant to be raw, visceral illustrations of a soldier’s headspace when he comes home from war. In order to write these—and the rest of the novel—these were some of my strategies:
I read books, blogs, articles. I listened to NPR’s veterans and war journalism. I watched boot camp training videos and YouTube videos uploaded by embedded reporters, one of which was a terrifying video of a soldier stepping on an IED. I researched prosthetics and how one lives with them. I went to the Marine Corps museum, viewed hundreds of photos, and watched documentaries on Marines and the war in Afghanistan.
I’m lucky in that I have several people in my family who are in the military and have served or worked with soldiers who went to Afghanistan and Iraq. And, of course, my father, as I mentioned, was a Marine who now suffers from PTSD. But I also reached out to my social network communities and found soldiers and Marines who were willing to talk to me about their struggles with PTSD, the difficulty of adjusting to coming home, and what their deployments were like. This helped me make the details—from Josh’s expressions to how he relates to everything in the world—authentic.
3) Expert Readers
I was lucky enough to be put in touch with a Marine with PTSD who was willing to read the book and give me notes on it. His generosity is boundless.
There were some incredibly dark days writing this book. Sometimes, I felt like a fraud. Other times, I was so terrified that the book wouldn’t live up to its subject matter, that I would somehow trivialize the tragedy and courage I kept encountering among the men and women I interviewed and researched. The tears and stress and heartbreak were worth it and I am very happy with the result. Best of all, by slipping into Josh’s skin, I got the chance to encounter a singular young man who taught me more about myself than I could have imagined. To me, Josh Mitchell is as real as anyone I know and I’m grateful he showed me his corner of the universe.
Heather Demetrios is the author of the critically acclaimed YA novel Something Real. When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, she lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, Heather is part of the Summer 2014 Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA class at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the Susan P. Bloom PEN New England Discovery Award for Something Real.