Saturday, January 2, 2010

Characters: Wild or Farm Raised

You have to listen to them carefully because they are, in their way, just as human as you are, quite capable of missing important information, once again, just as you are quite capable of missing important clues, hints, implications. They frequently have pleasant if not noble motives, and you must not judge them because their motives are, in your opinion, more on the pleasant than the noble side.

They are your characters, some of them farm raised, others wild, plucked from the seas of your imagination and experience, sometimes even leavened with your motives. You do not, for instance, merely stumble on a story; there is some factor being fed upon that maneuvers the characters from mere shadows to individuals who are caught in some widening inevitability. You are more likely to begin suspecting the lurking presence of a story if you are at the moment bored or defensive or awaiting some event with less than enthusiasm, thus story as distraction from an ordeal or a routine, sometimes even as a distraction from a routine ordeal.

The parts of the mind that are actively engaged in presenting story to you are constantly at work, piling on the coals of enthusiasm. What a lovely conflagration we shall have, you think as these seemingly unrelated moments, these scenes that appear as if in no particular order, as toothpaste taking a vacation from being confined within the tube.

Before long, you have realized they are the equivalent of day workers, men and women looking for an honest day's work for a reasonable day's pay. You will be doing great things for the local emotional economy, keeping these workers close to hand.

It is important to remember to give them a task, which is to express their desires. They don't get the job without telling you.

A final caution: Characters being control-freak types, some of them will want to tell you what theme they bring onto the page with them. They will scurry about, auditioning theme, but they are invariably wrong. You, on the other hand, may be wrong from time to time but with the flick of a delete button, you can solve most of those problems. Theme comes after you've got at least all of the first draft done. It may not even come then, and if you find yourself looking for it as you do your reading glasses or your pocket knife or even your fountain pen, you can bloody well stop looking. If you have been honest in letting the characters have at whatever it is they truly want, you may well have everything you need. Then some reader or critic, perhaps even an editor may approach you with a sly discussion of the theme that so movingly came forth from your story

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