I’ve always thought the mark of really excellent writing–fiction or otherwise–is being able to clearly see the character or the “subject” leap off the page before your eyes. The great stories that I have read and enjoyed are more like eavesdropping on the conversations and spying on the lives of the characters. It is, perhaps, a sign of obsession when you start actually feeling like the characters in books are your friends–but that’s a self psychoanalysis for another post. I have always preferred stories that are character-driven rather than plot-driven. If you need some explanation–a Jane Austen novel (or movie) is character driven where as something like the Bourne books (or movies) are more plot driven. Think drama versus action–to put it in a nutshell. I am always pleasantly surprised when something I have written myself has enough life that I can picture the character sitting right where I left him or her, waiting for me to pick up the conversation where we left out.
As I was thinking along these strange lines, I wondered what it would be like if I could sit down for just a moment with one of my main characters–if you haven’t read (or at least skimmed) the Southern Summer Night short story I wrote, you may want to take a peek. So, if I could sit down with Beau for a bit, I see it going something like this…
I’m sitting outside an old ice cream shoppe–the kind typical to southern towns still clinging to to the past in every way they can. It’s a gorgeous day–sunny and cool and breezy–and the trees actually change color in this little Alabama town. I see him walking towards me. He has a little bit of a swagger, but that might just be the boots he’s wearing. His jeans are faded and so is his plaid button down, but I can tell that they came with a hefty price tag. His hair is longer than it was when I last left him—a high school kid trying to get away. It’s not as curly as I thought it was though and he’s taller than I pictured. He’s frowning at me and I can’t see his eyes from behind his Rayban aviators. His hands are stuffed in his pockets and he stalks up to the table and stares down at me for a moment. I notice now that his shoulders are hunched and he looks highly uncomfortable. Then, I remember it has been quite some time since he has been back in this tiny Alabama town.
“Will you sit down?” I ask.
He yanks out the chair and the iron legs scrape loudly across the concrete. He finally removes the mirrored glasses and tucks them in the neckline of his shirt. It is easy to see that the years have added a sophistication to him, but when he finally speaks, his voice is the same slow, southern drawl I pictured. Not the caricature often exemplified in movies, but the real deal.
“It’s been a while,” he says, folding his arms on top of the wrought iron table and staring at me with piercing hazel eyes. The lashes around them are just as I pictured–obnoxiously long on a man.
“I know…” I feel guilty. “I’ve been busy.”
“You left me researching in the school library,” he accuses me.
I wince, remembering that right now he is stranded just there–in his high school library searching for his mother’s sister.
“Well, I did write you coming back here,” I protest. “Some of it, anyway.”
“Yeah and one helluva homecoming it’s been. You sure know how to welcome a guy back,” he leans back and squints at me through the sun. It brings out the red in his hair and I’m still trying to figure out how the scrawny eighteen year old Beau I last wrote has turned into this tall, confident man in his late twenties. Because I haven’t quite written the middle yet.
“Sorry…but you have been away a long time. Anyway, this is my story, here.”
“No, it’s my story, you’re just writing it.”
Dang. He has a point.
“I’m getting there…I just need to fill in the gaps. And I got stuck…and a little bored.”
“You’re bored?” he raises his dark eyebrows. “I’m still stuck in the high school library…which, by the way looks a lot like the one at your high school. Am I going to find my aunt? How do I end up back here ten years later like this?” He gestures at his clothes.
“It’s all up here,” I tap my temple…which isn’t entirely true…but a good chunk of it is floating around in there, mixed in with other half-thought characters and scenes from other projects.
“Want to fill me in?”
“That would be cheating,” I say smugly. Plus I haven’t quite figured it out yet…
I look at my watch and realize what time it is, that I have to get up early, that I have to do laundry and I stand up from the table.
“Where are you going?” he asks, looking surprise.
“I have to go…I have things to do.”
“Well try writing the rest of my life when you get the chance,” he says, with some of the bitterness that I had hoped would have faded in ten years. It hasn’t.
As I lean back from the keyboard, Beau is still sitting there, arms crossed on the table and staring off down the road in that tiny Alabama town. At the same time, he is sitting in the library at an ancient PC desktop computer, tapping away at the keys, ten years in the past.
“I’ll write the middle…and the end,” I tell myself, and him, as the ice cream shoppe and the fluorescent lights of the library both blend together, blur, and fade away.