Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The care and feeding of characters

Me, being intense.  Also, what's up with the different-sized eyes?   
One incredibly important thing I've learned as a writer is that, by creating non-cliche characters, one has a chance to react to a real-life, personal crisis in non-cliche ways.  Let me explain.  I am a sensitive flower with a very tough-woman exterior.  I have what my mother calls, "The Look", which means I evidently possess the ability to intimidate people with my laser-beam eyes.  Mainly, I'm not aware of this.  I operate behind the face, which means I'm backstage to whatever is going on in front.  Sometimes, peoples' responses to me surprise me, and the cables and pulleys that operate my heart get tangled.  So, my reactions are reactionary.  Defensive.  Hurt.  What we used to call 'ouch-ouch' in Diversity Training.  I don't think I'm alone in this, either.  Everyone has cringeworthy moments they remember in their darkest moments of self-doubt.   

Okay, so get to what you're talking about, Morgan.

When I first began Rubinrotes herz eisblaue see, (Red Ruby....), I created a mean, nasty Daddy figure and took him to my writing group.  WARNING: DIGRESSION: One place to put sensitivity aside is in a trustworthy writing group.  It's important to take charge of your own writing and your own intent in a non-emotional fashion, and to understand whassup, before you present your piece.  Know when a piece isn't ready for the light of day and protect that baby until you've provided it with a lunchbox and knapsack and can wave goodbye to it without weeping.  Go in honestly wanting to know what folks think, and never expect it to come back to you without at least one skinned knee.   
Anyway, the Daddy figure in the book was pronounced 'cliche'.  Ouch.  But not a horrible ouch, just kind of a wince and a shrug of the shoulder to remove the demon riding on my shoulder.  What did I do with their information?  I took every response that Daddy had to a situation - cranky at the least; threatening and emotionally damaging at the most - and I turned it around.  Example:  Cliche Response:  "If you don't stop crying, I'll give you something to cry about."  Non-cliche Response:  A nonverbal hug.  Another example:  "If you say anything like that again, I'm gonna smack you."  Non-cliche Response:  "I'm ashamed of you and I'm walking out now.  I hope I don't hear you say anything like that, again." 

Mind you, I did not change who he was, a working-man with a minimum of education, a love of drink, and an easily confused emotional psyche.  New Age drumming circles weren't invented when the character was created, but I did humanize him, tried to take where he had come from and invest that in his personality and in his love for his family.  And I did that for all of the characters, particularly the ones I didn't like.  It made us all work harder, and it made for a much richer experience for me as a writer.  I wasn't bored when anyone walked into a room.  I was always entertained at what took place.

That said, when I write a first draft, I will often 'cliche' the characters to get the writing down.  And then I will change it all - the reactions, what happened as a result of them, how the narrator reacts to what is being said and done, and so on.  But it is important to me to get it all down.  I'm messing with a lot of ideas and a basic plot at this point, and I need to start somewhere.  The shades and hues of the personalities concerned take shape as I go along, as does everything else.

So, how did learning how to do this on paper change my life?  Concrete example:  I used to work as an assistant in a fire station.  One of my duties was answering phones.  One day, I picked up the phone with my professional and pleasant greeting, and a well-seasoned, gruff male voice asked for the Fire Chief.  "He isn't in," I said.  "Would you like his voice mail?"  His response was a sing-songy, impatient imitation of my voice, "No, I would not like his voice mail...".  (It really was icky, and potentially disastrous for both of us.  I could have hung up, he could have been angry)  I paused.  And then I did the unexpected - subconsciously.  I laughed and I laughed.  And he laughed, too  What a feckin' relief!  It has affected many conversations, turned emotions around, made me less fearful of a response, less sensitive.  Primarily, it has affected my relationship with Bob in a number of ways, least of which is that we are together, and I'm glad of it.  My cliche responses to his overtures may have nipped what has become the most important relationship to me in the bud.  But that's another story.  One that I'm going to try to get published.                     

Me, smiling.  Still, what's with the eyes?  Well, at least I can change the reaction.

1 comment:

  1. And I love who Daddy became in Ruby Red Heart. He was my favorite character after Florine. Interesting little hint there at the end, by the way, about your next book. :)