Conversations With An Unfinished Character

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.

Five Things Your Writer Friends Want You to Know (but don’t know how to tell you)

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.”