Writers often talk about how their characters will develop minds of their own, how they’ll do things the author never would have expected when they first started writing them. I think this phenomenon is wonderful but I’m not sure it’s quite happened to me in the way many writers describe. It’s a side-effect of knowing your characters really well–something that is critically important if you want other people (i.e. readers) to see your characters as real people and not as cardboard Flat Stanleys on the page.
I have recently been working on some stories related to Southern Summer Night. I probably know more about Beau (the protagonist) than I do about a lot of my other characters. One of the newer stories was for class and and one element of the feedback I received was surprising–everyone wanted to know more about Beau’s relationship with his father; they didn’t have the benefit of all the information in my head about that particular S.O.B.
At the end of my master’s program, I have to present a thesis. So, sometime before that, I have to write said thesis. I originally thought I’d do a novel—I always wrote more novel-length stories than short stories–but that’s looking less likely. Short story collections are another option. However, if you know anything about short story collections, they’re like a fashion runway collection. Everything has to fit together somehow, it has to be cohesive. It has to have a theme. There’s another kind of short story collection where the stories are linked. Whether by place (Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson is one well known example) or character (Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout — there is some argument over whether this is a novel or short story collection, but for the sake of argument…work with me), the stories have a link that’s more solid than a common theme.
I started thinking about perhaps writing linked stories about Beau and his hometown and his family. The obvious first choice was Beau’s father, Mason. Everyone wanted to know why Beau hated him so much–and was there more to Mason than just being an abusive, alcoholic caricature? I started writing about Mason after figuring out what could have happened in his life–what disappointment, what slings and arrows (as it were) drove him to be the miserable, foul person he is in Beau’s life. The funny thing is, knowing as I do where he ends, I feel bad for the guy as I write about his younger days. I wonder if there was anything he could have done to change his fate. And then I realize while technically he has no choice because I am his Creator (insert maniacal laughter), it is his choices that turn him into the “monster” he becomes–and that’s his real downfall. That he chose poorly again and again.
What about you? Do you ever write about secondary or side-line characters and learn new things about them AND about your main character? Do you know or write the “back story” for characters–even if it isn’t included in your stories? Do you ever feel like you’re torturing your poor characters and should cut them a break?