It’s my opinion that good fiction writers are able to become their characters. I’ve had characters come alive in my head and take over the story. Those have been my best stories. When that happens, my characters stop speaking to me and we are one. This sort of description would label me as crazy anywhere else, but tack the label “author” to my forehead and I’m perfectly sane.

Not all of us write this way, but for those that do, are we born with it or do we learn it? I was born with it. My favorite games as a child all involved role playing. I would pretend to be someone else. I loved it because I would have to imagine an entire other life. Something totally alien to what I lived. What was it like to live alone on an island? What if my neighborhood wasn’t familiar because I had just moved there? What new things would I find?

When I started writing, thanks to my third grade teacher Mrs. Floreno, I started thinking more about these other pretend lives. These pretend lives were shallow in comparison to the real deal. I started looking at the people around me. I couldn’t quite imagine life from their end, but I did wonder what it looked like.

In college my characters started talking to me. They would comment on my life and how different or weird it was. I grew up “white bread”. There was no diversity in my elementary school. Very little in junior high, and only a little more in high school. College was so diverse it felt like my head was exploding. I learned about gay, Jew, black, Asian, Hispanic, Latino, lesbian, white collar, homeless, poverty, atrocity, sexual assault, sexual freedom, kindness, love, competition, weakness, strength and so many more things. My pretend lives fleshed out and became deeper and richer. Clearly, not only was I born with it, but I’ve learned it as well.

Imagine my surprise to find a new word that describes what I’ve been trying to describe in paragraphs.

Sonder – The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

-Coined in 2012 by John Koenig for his project The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a compendium of invented words written by John Koenig. Each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language—to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for.

Not only do my characters speak to me, but I feel sonder. Until today, I thought everyone felt it. A friend wrote on Facebook,

It struck me as I looked at all of the familiar places that I have come to really love that for somebody else, this is just another one of those random places with features and landmarks, streets and buildings, that don’t mean anything in particular…

Go out today and find sonder.


2 thoughts on “Sonder

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