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?
“Granda said it’s dragon. He fell asleep and the grass grew on him and he won’t wake up until the world ends.”
“Your Granda loved to tell stories; he told me that same one, too.” Patrick looked down at his son, who stared fixedly at the mound of grass. They’d spent a week in Ireland, packing up his father’s house.
“Did you feel that?” Connor’s blue eyes were huge. Patrick was about to ask him what he was talking about when the ground vibrated beneath their feet.
A few miles away, a delivery truck rumbled over the uneven back roads.
The sun sank down over the river, painting the sky pale shades of mauve and cerulean and tangerine. She rested her head against the cool window that blocked the chill wind and the deep, muddy smell of the river and looked ahead.
The fluorescent ferry lights were harsh compared to the gentle sunset. When the ferry bumped against the opposite shore, she slid out of her seat and walked quickly down the gangplank.
The backpack the crew found later that evening held a bloody Saints t-shirt, a jacket, and jeans, but nothing that could lead the police to the owner.
If you’re friends with a writer (today is definitely one of those days where I want to put that in quotations) then there are a few things you should know.
1) You probably don’t want to end up in one of their stories. Chances are, a character even loosely based on you is going to come out as more of a caricature. Yes, it could possibly be an endearing portrait of your quirks and foibles, or it could be that your entire outer persona is flayed to the bone, exposing all of your bad habits and annoying traits. So don’t ask to be put in your writer friend’s story…if they’re having a bad day, chances are your character will, too.
There are exceptions, as there are to everything–having a character be inspired by a friend or family member is less risky, because that comes about organically and you realize that a character you’ve written has all of the good traits and a few of the downfalls of someone you love. However, if you harass your writer friend about naming a character after you or if your friend is safe in knowing that you will probably never read their writing, expect some brutally honest portrayals of your lesser points.
2) If you ask what their story is “about” you can expect one of two things: a short sentence that is the bare bones of the story or a thirty minute long dialogue breaking down the finer points and cartwheeling off into an analysis of the major characters. Why is this? Because usually, “Well..um..it’s about this guy and his brother…but they’re not really brothers…but you don’t know that until the end…and…basically the first guy is just trying to save the kingdom,” is the easiest way out. Of course, that doesn’t seem to satisfy everyone. Often they follow up with: “Oh, so like, what happens?”
This is when you look at the person asking the questions (who, I might add is usually not a close friend, because they’re (a) already tired of hearing about the problems you’re facing with your plot or (b) they’re just so awed that you wrote more than 10 pages on something that anything else you say will be like gospel) and give them this look. I call it the “do you really want to know?” look. It’s that look you give your parents when they ask what time you got home last night or how much money you spent on those shoes.
The interest is flattering–to a point. Writers can usually tell when you are just making small talk and when you are actually interested in what they have to say. If you’re not interested in hearing all the gory details of their latest effort and have absolutely no interest in reading it, then settle for the one sentence description and move on. We can tell when you don’t really want to know, and we don’t really want to tell you–especially if the story is currently stuck in limbo and we know our characters are standing around wherever we left them, bored and waiting for something to happen while we struggle with writer’s block.
3) Don’t tell us you want to read our writing if you don’t. It’s that simple. Having people you know read your writing is so much more terrifying than letting strangers get a peek into your innermost thoughts. (Exception: graduate school admissions readers.) If you read our writing and hate it, we will know either by the fact that it never comes up in conversation ever again, or by the inordinate amount of praise you give us on a five page short story about nonsense.
4) If you tell us you want to read our writing, are sincere, AND we actually go to the effort to get it into your hands, please actually read it. There’s a special kind of torture that one goes through knowing their story is sitting in someone’s email inbox and wondering if they’ve read it yet.
“It’s been three days…did they hate it? Did they read it? Are they so amazed they haven’t been able to even type an email in response?”
So please, for our sanity and yours, read the darned sample and give us some sort of sign–smoke signal, carrier pigeon, text– that you read the thing. Or that you didn’t. We understand your life is busy and you don’t always have time to read the first 90 pages of our epic novel in two days. But, the fact that we even gave you a chance to peer into the crazy, mixed up place that is inside our heads usually means we trust you and your opinion. Consider it a compliment and act accordingly.
5) Don’t tell them what to write about. One of the more awkward things you can say to a writer is: “Well why don’t you write about ABC?”
“Well…because I don’t want to. ABC is boring and I would rather go to the dentist than write a single sentence referring to ABC,” is unfortunately not a polite answer to give to the people asking these questions.
This question usually seems to come from people who don’t know you or your writing well. I assume it comes from some deeply imbedded need to give you advice you neither want nor need. I’ll let you in on a little secret: if we wanted to write about ABC, we would have. And we know you would not appreciate us saying: “If you’re so interested in ABC why don’t YOU write about it.”
But hey, if you REALLY want to be immortalized in fiction, you should probably subject your writer friends to ALL of these situations. And then come find me so I can say, “I told you so.”