The Characters That I Am Not

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things that I am not.” -Joss Whedon

An interesting thing happened when I sent the beta version of my book out to my parents (hi, Mom). Mom and Dad were, unsurprisingly, thrilled and excited and said all kinds of nice things about it. They were also gravely concerned.

One of my characters, you see, has quite a foul mouth. The swearing is truly atrocious. Dad said he thought that with my brilliant mind I could do better than that. Mom felt I was setting a bad example. I thought: Well, it’s not like it’s me swearing. Blame Tory, for goodness’ sake. All I’m doing is writing down what he says.

Exploring the things that I am not.

Which is true of all my characters, of course. Not one of them is me. It really is the true joy of the thing, getting to know the inside of someone else’s head, looking out at the world from their point of view.

And today I’d like to introduce you to a few of them. Meet Tory.

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Tory paced the cell, tripping over legs and beating on the wall with his fist. One of the boys yelled at the Mercant when it came, but it was pointless. Tory told him he was an idiot. The boy’s name was Kis. Kis asked Tory if he had any better ideas. Tory told him his idea was to shut up.

After about a week, several of the boys had swollen lips and bruised cheeks from fighting with each other. Tory thought he might burst from frustration.

Then one day something happened: One wall of the room disappeared. Tory’s heart leapt for one cruel moment when he saw trees and sunlight.

But it took only a heartbeat to realize: The new space was yet another prison. The “trees” were plastic climbing apparatus, the “pond” was a grimy little plastic pool set in the ground, and the walls were just farther apart.

Three of his roommates had already run out into the space, whooping and hollering as though they had actually found freedom. Kis, who seemed to have finally figured out how pointless everything was, stared out silently. He looked inquiringly at Tory. Tory shrugged. Might as well.

Well, okay, Dad was right about one thing (imagine that). Tory doesn’t need to swear to be who Tory is. So the swearing is (mostly) gone. You’re welcome, Mom.

Even though it’s written with my boys in mind, the book has female characters too. You want to meet Semantha? Say hello. (But she’ll probably just roll her eyes at you.)

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Semantha’s eyes are actually much paler than they look here, and she usually wears that hair in braids. Just so you know.

Semantha looked over the top of the book and glared at her little brother. He was only ten and a crappy shooter, but he always got the first turn with the chem gun. Father was issuing the same instructions he had given a thousand times before: “The chem gun won’t kill them, at least not at first, but it’s enough to hold them at bay for a while. If you really want to do some damage, use a flame thrower. Then,” and Father made a stupid “pow-splat” sound with his mouth and Semantha rolled her eyes.

Children weren’t allowed to use flame throwers, of course, not even for practice. Only soldiers were allowed to have them, and only Outside. Jonethen might go Outside someday, but not Semantha. Oh no. Her job was to “grow up and have a nice little family,” as Mother loved to remind her.

Father finished his instructions and Jonethen took aim. And missed wildly. Semantha snorted and returned to the book, a memoir of the Great Perimeter Battle by General Agular Tonsen. She had pulled it down from the shelf in the dusty little pro shop where they rented the chem gun. Mr. Gerban, the shop owner, patted her on the head and said, “You can borrow it, sweetheart. It’ll give you something wholesome to do while your brother practices.” She had faked a smile, said thank you, and ducked out to the target area.

Semantha looked up again to see Jonethen make a couple of decent shots, then miss the entire target again, twice in a row. Father said that was enough for today, and clapped him on the shoulder. He set the chem gun down on the bench and turned to her:

“Go ahead, Semantha. Just bring it inside when you’re done, and don’t lick it or anything. Those chemicals are bad for you.”

Duh.

Semantha pushed her long braids behind her, loaded the gun with a fresh canister. They were just paint canisters for practice, anyway, so it was a doubly stupid thing for him to say. She took the gun to her shoulder and imagined herself taking aim at an Ekross: Pow! Right on target.

Finally, I want to introduce you to somebody who is very, very special to me. He’s the only one whose story is told in first present, and only because he insisted on it. He told me what he wanted rather awkwardly and very politely, of course, and once I understood, he was much happier. He is a gentle soul and often misunderstood. Please be kind to him. This is Jed.

This might be sorta what Jed looks like. Only, skinnier and with more hair. And he'd never have his picture taken with a blue backdrop because they don't have studios in the wild, silly.

The sun is coming up, and the other boys are laughing and shouting already. They’ll leave me alone if I’m quiet and if I remember not to say anything about the plants. When we get where the dirt path ends, I tell them bye and go up toward the meadow. I don’t want to hear when they find roots to dig up.

There won’t be many berries yet, but maybe a few. I always thank the bushes when I take their berries. If I find good leaves, I’ll put a few in my sack—they don’t mind when you do that. If you take the whole plant though, then the screaming is awful.

When I get to the meadow, I throw myself down in the grass, feel the chill earth against my belly. When my breathing gets slow and quiet, I can hear the plants whispering. They’re so glad it’s morning and they’re alive—it makes me glad to be alive too. I wonder if they can hear me saying that to them?

Flowers have a cheerful sound, like tiny bells. The grass sounds smooth. Trees are like big drums, booming up from their roots under the meadow. I like listening to the meadow, but the sun is high and my sack is still empty. I’ll probably have to sit in the ninth circle at dinner again tonight, but what can I do? I’d rather go hungry than kill the plants.

I start back toward home, looking and looking for leaves and berries. Sometimes Mom asks why my foraging bag is never full. One time, I tell her about the plants. She looks mad and says, “That’s a really weird thing to say, Jed.” So the next time she holds my skinny arm in her big warm hand and says, “Jed, why is your bag empty again?” I say, “I forgot,” and she shakes her head. 

So, there they are. What did you think? Whose story do you most want to read? Which one would you most like to hang out with?

And would you like to meet more characters from my book? Tell me. Maybe I’ll highlight them in a future entry. Maybe I’ll even let one of the alien creatures speak to you.

She’s Baaack!

It’s an interesting phenomenon, the fictional character. It’s not exactly that they become real, but they do. It’s not exactly that they decide for themselves what they will do, but they do.

There’s this little girl in my book, and I put her there because I felt a need to have a girl talk to a girl. Then that flopped, so I took her out. Then I put her back in. And took her out. She was like a florescent bulb that can’t decide whether it wants to turn on or off. Then a couple mornings ago on my way in to work, I thought, well, why not just ask her whether she wants to be in the story or not?

So I did.

And she did.

So I put her back in.

I told Monty (age 12) about this, and he said, “Wait, who are you talking about?”

“My character.”

“The one you wrote? Your made-up character?”

“Yes.”

“You asked her what she wanted?”

“Mm-hm.”

“And she answered you?”

“Yup.”

“Oh. That’s weird.”

Yes, that’s true.

So there was that, and then I got to thinking about this scene I was struggling over, the one where a couple characters who’ve been looking for each other finally find each other, and I had to imagine it now with this extra character in there and… I started to cry. That’s when I knew for sure she had to stay in. It wasn’t any of the main characters, for all their poignancy, who made me feel the pain and the sorrow and the bittersweetness (I always think of Across Five Aprils and 8th grade English, with the teacher who bullied me, whenever I say “bittersweet”) of it all. It was this little girl, slight and quiet and a little shy, standing on the sidelines watching and yearning… who made me weep. So she’s in to stay.

She seems happy about it, even if she is rather sad right now. Bittersweet.

Stick me in the insane asylum. There’s no hope for me.

Pain and Passion and Blocking

Pain. Passion. Blocking.

I’ve written lots of pain and passion into this little story of mine. But this morning I didn’t really want to write. The characters are moving inexorably toward the climax, but I still don’t see a clear path there, and there is so much exposition necessary. We have recently moved into a new environment, a cave city, which requires describing, and the characters must learn about it before they can do anything in it. And I have to learn about it, too, before I can tell what they do in it. One of the characters elsewhere has entered a long, lonely phase of inventing something. How do you write interestingly about inventing something? I don’t know. It’s not really my job to know that, is it? I mean, maybe it is, but maybe it’s just my job to know when something isn’t interesting and take that part out and skip ahead to the good bits. Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.

Still have to write something, though. So this morning, thinking these thoughts, I dutifully arose and headed to the computer. Ignored the distractions of a thousand blinking notifications. Recorded my time and word count (62,743, 6:30 am), opened my Word document, stared at my screen. The usual.

Remember how I said I ignored the notifications? I didn’t actually ignore them. I read them all first, because, well, that’s why I have to get up at 5am in order to get an hour’s worth of writing in before my first appointment at 9 (that, and this blog). Anyway. One of the things in my notifications was this:

Nabokov on Inspiration

Read it and come back. It’s worth it. I’ll wait.

Okay, so I read that, and I thought, “Gee-eez. No pressure or anything.” It’s so much clearer when it’s just “sit down and write at the same time every day, butt to chair, butt to chair.” THAT I can do, you know, it’s not easy but you just do it.

But now I have to do that AND get inspired, have aura-things happen to me, and be ready to grab them at the exact moment they occur. How, exactly, am I supposed to do that? What if the inspiration comes–as it often does–when I’m in the middle of a deadline at work? Or in a meeting? Or in the car? Then it is lost forever. Like I need one more thing to worry about.

Poor, poor Samuel. How I ache for him, in losing the rest of Kubla Khan. Just a knock at the door and POOF.

(Note to Carey: Please don’t even kiss me goodbye in the middle of my flow/inspiration, please, and don’t leave without kissing me either. You just have to know when I’m in flow and when I’m not, and kiss me when I’m not, okay? Is that so much to ask?)

Not that I would necessarily know anything about inspiration, because according to Nabokov, I’ve never actually been inspired. Ever. I have never in my life felt this “aura-thingy,” which apparently all true writers learn to distinguish as children. I’m almost 40. So. You know. Maybe I shouldn’t bother?

So I’m sitting in front of my screen, resisting the temptation to spend the entire hour re-reading my whole story so far (could it even all be read in an hour at this point?), to decide if it’s worth continuing, and convincing myself that it’s not, because one of my characters is recognizably similar to a famous character from a famous novel (my KIDS pointed this out to me). I am obviously a shitty writer and should really just stop before wasting any more time.

But I remember Anne’s advice, and I say, “Okay. What do I have to do to make this story interesting to ME?” And it doesn’t take long for me to know what has to happen. And then I get excited. And then I get frustrated. Because, you know, now I have to figure out where they each are when this thing happens, how it happens. I have to STAGE it, like a director arranging actors on the stage, I have to know which direction they’re each facing when it happens, how they’re standing in relation to one another so it all comes out looking natural while still showing you what you want to see. In theater, they call it blocking.

And I have to decide whose point of view it will be told in this time. It’s such a critical scene, and I really MUST get it right. Will it be from her point of view, watching from the sidelines? His, from the center of the action? The other hers, seeing everything anew at once, the sights and emotions jumbled and overwhelming?

And how desperately I want someone to tell me. And why shouldn’t they? There are hours of video, thousands of pages, millions of words, of writers giving advice to writers. How to start, how to overcome writer’s block, how to get published, how to write dialog, how to use the active voice, how to do everything under the sun and not one of those pieces of advice tells me which character should tell this part of the story. Seriously, authors. Get it together.

So I just had to go it alone. And it turned out, I never even wrote the scene I wanted so desperately to write. I spent my entire hour setting it up, placing the characters just so (oh, I know, I should say, “waiting until my characters reached the scene,” or “watching my characters move toward this climax,” because we all know the characters have lives of their own and we writers are not really puppet masters so much as bystanders with a pen, but the truth is, sometimes the characters tell you WHAT will happen, but then leave you to figure out exactly HOW it will happen, and then you have to tell them where to be and when, so they can do the things they know they must do).

And so I trudged. I didn’t quite get to that scene of my pain and passion. Just the set-up. I know where they’re each standing when it happens, and how they got there, what direction each is looking. Each of them has told their own little snippet of the set-up scene, each one ending with a cliff-hanger: “Then something extraordinary happened that drove all those thoughts out of her head…”

And, having brought all three to this point and set them up around the stage, the moment itself, of course, will be his. Because he is the one who will be most caught off-guard, most astonished, most set off balance by it. He also has the best view of the action. Blocking.

And tomorrow, I will write that scene. I can hardly wait. The anticipation is delicious. Tomorrow, the characters will do what they will do, and all I have to do is write it down: Bystander with a pen.

And isn’t this moment, this precise moment, exactly parallel to our own lives as writers? We bring our characters to the right place at the right time, and then let them do what they will do, and, eventually, after many tears and tearings of hair, it happens. Likewise, we bring ourselves to the right place, this chair, this keyboard, at the right time (for me it’s at least an hour before the kids arise), and do what we must do… we set the stage, as many times as we must, through as many tears and tearings of hair as necessary, and then: It happens.

And how I want to share IT with you! I want to tell you their names, their precious, beautiful names. The names I repeat to myself throughout the day, saying each one over again, rolling them around inside my head, smiling because I love them so. much. But I can’t, not yet. It’s a rule. They’re mine right now, and I will gift them to you when they are ready for you. We’re still getting the blocking right.

P.S. Listen to J.K. Rowling talk about staging McGonagall–and about writing a scene wrong the first time (really, watch it, please, it’s less than two minutes. I’m sorry you have to click through, darn WordPress for not displaying embed code properly, for websites insisting on exclusive content–haven’t they heard intellectual property is dead in the age of the Internet?–Anyway, you won’t be sorry, it’s beautiful).