Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Real-Life Fake People! FREE!

I was just sitting down to start working on this post when my sister-in-law texted me about the Supreme Court's decision on DOMA and Prop 8. I got completely derailed - listening to NPR, watching Twitter and Facebook explode, crying and laughing, and wishing profoundly that my wife didn't work in a concrete cave so that I could call her and hear her voice and celebrate with her. I know this is a blog about writing novels, but I can't help it; this is so far beyond just politics for me.

However, I'm going to try to re-focus, here, and talk about characters. You know, about Real-Life Fake People! FREE!

Seriously, who can resist FREE STUFF??? I can't. I'm a sucker for all the swag they give out at conferences (and really, how many flimsy plastic keychain lobs does one person need?), not to mention free food. And for someone who normally tries to eat very healthy, this is a very strange thing to love, because free food is almost uniformly horrendous. And yet, I love it, anyway, because I didn't pay for it.

BUT, lucky for you, this post includes NO cheap-o keychains or crappy packaged food. Nope. Here, you get FREE IMAGINARY PEOPLE! YAY!

Last week, I went on a heavily psychological tear about crafting real, three-dimensional characters instead of lifeless robots (incidentally, if you're writing a sci-fi novel about robots with no personalities, you should ignore these posts). This is the approach I used when I was working on Cloudland; if you haven't read the last post, go do it now. No really, I'll wait. I don't mind; it's important (can anyone else hear their Jewish grandmothers talking when I say that?)

All done? Lovely. So, on Ms. George's advice, I created a nice character analysis document in Word, and then I went to town. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and then I ignored all reasonable word limits, and kept writing. There are two main characters in the book (Jake and Sara, as I've mentioned), and then a second tier of four secondary characters (the Guide, Jake's father and mother, and Sara's mother), a third tier of one tertiary character (Sara's father), and then a fourth tier of some characters who are barely mentioned at all.

Everyone in the first three tiers got a detailed, in-depth, and otherwise exhaustive analysis. This included Jake's mother - who dies early on in the novel, but she's clearly so central to the story that I had to know who she was - and Sara's father, who dies before the novel starts, but since the whole book is about Sara's quest to find him, he needed to be developed.

Why? Well, a lot of reasons. For example, I had to know what, specifically, Jake and Sara missed about their parents, because that's how grief often works; it's so damned specific, it can seem crazy. You focus on the tiny, insignificant things about a person - an old shirt they loved, no matter how dingy; their favorite food; the way their hands moved when they talked - and then you spend a lot of time missing the hell out of those little things.

Plus, both of these people live in Sara and Jake's flashbacks, and in order for those memories to be compelling and real, I had to know how both parents would have acted, spoken, thought, and moved.

As for the other very minor characters, I didn't work on them, mainly because their appearances were so brief that it didn't seem necessary. However, my editor would probably argue (and she'd probably be right) that I should have created an analysis for at least one of those fourth tier characters - Sara's boyfriend, Brian - because he is currently giving both of us rather large, pounding headaches; he just doesn't quite seem to belong in the book. My editor keeps using writerly terms like, "you haven't earned that conversation" when he shows up. Meaning, in layman's terms, "what the &*$# is he doing here??" A fair question, and he may be one of my murdered darlings by the time we're done. I'm holding out for him for now, though.

At any rate, how do these analyses actually look, in real-world terms? Below, I'm posting an excerpt from the one I created for Jake. Why an excerpt, you ask? Well, for one, I tend to be rather, um, long-winded (I'm sure you haven't noticed that by now). Two, I really do dig in when I do these analyses, and I write for a long time, in free-form brainstorming-style, about who they are. And those two factors combined would make what is already a long blog post into a freaking monster.

So, excerpt-time:

Jake (Age 5-6):

Half Cape Verdean (mom's side), and half African-American (dad's side). He looks much more like his mother than his father, which will torture his father once his mother has died. He has his mother’s lighter brown skin tone, his mother’s delicate facial features and small frame, and, especially, his mother’s beautiful and soulful brown eyes. 

He is a quiet, introverted child by nature. Thoughtful, silent, and intense. He can communicate, he gets along with other kids relatively well, although he doesn’t have many friends: he prefers his own inner world to anything anyone else offers, except maybe his mom. I think he is an observer, a watcher. He’s probably quite bright. He is intensely curious, but unlike most children, he doesn’t ask questions out loud. Instead, he asks them in his own mind, and creates his own answers based on the facts he gathers from the world around him, and his own fertile imagination. Magic is very much alive for him, but he wouldn’t characterize it as ‘magic’ – it is every bit as real and solid to him as the so-called world of objects.

I think he had a special relationship with his mother, because they are so similar. He was much more communicative with her than with anyone else, especially his father; he can easily sense his father’s ambivalence and discomfort, and is a little afraid of him. His mother liked hearing his queer, strange ideas and stories; she never made fun of him, was never worried about what his brain created. 

It’s only when his mother dies that his quietness becomes deep, unassailable, and frightening (to the world). He withdraws into himself completely, into his own inner world where he can make sense of what is happening, where there is no accusatory father to disturb him. When his mother dies, and his father becomes so withdrawn and so angry, he is terrified. His world is full of danger, and there is no one to protect him. 

Core Need: To feel safe and loved, especially by his mother.
Pathological Maneuver: Introversion to the point of being totally non-responsive to the world around him. When he is afraid or upset, he retreats within; it is only within himself that he can be safe.
Sexuality: He was just starting to grow past the point where he was intensely attached to his mother, and starting to wonder if he could be more like his dad, when his mother died. This does two things in terms of child sexuality: 1) it made him intensely vulnerable to his father’s distance and coolness, and 2) it made him regress back to desperately wanting to be close to his mom.
Essential Past Event: His parents took him to the Museum of Natural History when he was very small, probably 3-4 years old or so. He got very interested in an exhibit, as he often does with things he observes, and didn’t realize that his parents had turned to the next exhibit. They were only a few feet away, but when he realized they were gone, he panicked. He sat down on the floor and concentrated very hard on his mother finding him, believing that if he thought about it hard enough she would. And she did. This led to a strong belief in the power of his own mind.
Core Desire: To find his mother.
Religion: Catholic. He goes to Church every week with his mom and dad, but he finds it a little boring, and hard to understand. He likes the beauty of the big churches, and the organ music, though. 

Spirituality: He is led, inspired, and informed by his mother’s true sense of spirituality. He believes very much that God and Jesus exist. To him, they literally live in a kingdom in the sky, close to or even the same as the place that his mother imagines escaping to. He has asked her before if her special place in the sky is close to where God lives; she doesn’t have a clear answer (“Maybe. Maybe they’re the same thing, maybe not. But I’d like to believe that wherever God is, there’s peace and lots of open sky.”) He sees God as a father figure; powerful, loving, a bit distant, a bit unfathomable. 

Hey, thanks for making it all the way to the bottom of this post! You are my new Favorite Person, and I will give a signed copy of Cloudland to you...once it's published :)

Next week: time to talk about PLOT. Probably. 

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