Tuesday, July 6, 2010

People are Characters

Growing up, I had a great-aunt and uncle who had once begun to quarrel while standing at the kitchen sink, washing dishes. Given their reputation, the topic of the fight may well have been the proper rules for playing Canasta.

But things built to volcanic proportions, and when a plate slipped from my uncle's hands and shattered, my aunt decided, if that was the way things were going to go, she could give as well as she got. She grabbed a bowl and chucked it to the floor. Rising to the challenge, my uncle smashed another plate. And so it went, until they hadn't a single dish to eat from.

They lived in a cheap apartment. The walls were thin.

Which was how it happened, the next morning, that a clutch of neighbors appeared at the door with a box of dishes, and a sign that read, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!"

Isn't that wonderful?

My brother tells of a grandfather and grandmother who used to fight often and loudly... and with guns.

He says his father drove a packed family car onto the property once to see Grandpa running zig-zag across the meadow, faster than an old man ought to have to, while Grandma stood on the porch, taking aim, and shooting. She spotted the car coming up the drive, broke into a smile, and put the rifle down. "Pa!" she called. "Come on back! The kids are here!"

My brother-in-law would make a great writer, and I have no idea if this story is true. But I hope it is.

Which brings me to the first rule of character development: Your reader is going to spend hours, perhaps days with your protagonist. It's the equivalent of a weekend, cross-country drive. Give your reader someone who makes the trip worthwhile.

In the same book Patti quoted on Monday, The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass describes what I mean:

"In your circle of friends, who is the most outrageous? Do you have an acquaintance who will blurt out anything, wears horrible bow ties or skin-tight jump suits zipped down to the naval, flies to Borneo on a whim, flirts with your mother, shoots cactus tequila, believes in astral projection, named a cat Richard Nixon, does calculus for pleasure, drives a hot pink hearse, got arrested once in Omaha? No? Wouldn't it be fun? It would be great to meet some outrageous characters in manuscripts too, but I rarely do."

This doesn't mean that all your characters have to be slap-stick cartoons. Sharon is writing a book about a woman whose child was stolen - an utterly unique woman with a distinct voice. Latayne is writing a novel about Priscilla of the Book of Acts - but hers is like no Biblical story you've read before, and the characters will unnerve you by the depth of their nuance.

No, characters should be real people. But be careful. I never saw my great-aunt and uncle fight. Around me, he was stately, a gentleman, and she an elegant lady. It was others who told me the truth. Most folks don't present themselves as real people. They clean things up for the public, arrange themselves to blend in. And the average person believes the charade.

Writers mustn't be fooled. They must see beneath the surface of their family, friends, acquaintances... and by extension, their characters.

I'm listening to an audio-book, Christ the Lord: the Road to Cana, by Anne Rice. I chose this book because I am also reading Latayne's manuscript, and because the two books are so similar in such intriquing ways. Let me close with a passage that stunned me. The point-of-view character is Jesus. How's that for a challenge in character voice?

"What, you mean they don't say strange things about Yeshua?" said Jason, staring at Joseph, and then at me. "You know what thery call you, my mute and immutable friend," he said to me. "They call you Yeshua, the Sinless."

I laughed, but I turned away so that it didn't seem that I laughed in his face. But I was actually laughing in his face. He went on talking, but I didn't hear him. I fell to watching his hands. He had beautiful smooth hands. And often when he went into a tirade or a long poem, I merely watched his hands. They made me think of birds.
Today in the comments, let's tell stories. Who are some of the "characters" you have known in real life? Can you tell us about them without embarrassing or incriminating them? If not, then tell us about a favorite, well drawn character from your reading.

We love to read what you have to say.


Wendy Paine Miller said...

My dad was a character. Pretty reflective this year about him. It’s been three months since he’s been gone. To share some memories…Every Christmas he’d get decked out in lederhosen. His chicken legs still fit the suede-like pants when he was in his sixties, but the button always popped on his belly. We used to have a deer head hanging in our family room. My dad made a big charade. He snuck outside and crawled on the roof and danced up there, hoping me and my three sisters would finally believe Santa’s reindeer had touched down. "Rudolph's pals were up there. Did you hear them?"

This is the same man who tired easily of girl talk around the table so he’d rally us all to start in making pond noises. The man had the best bullfrog impersonation, not to mention a mean rain whistle.

Ah, it’s these things I miss. Not the highly successful businessman stories. I miss the dancing German reindeer on the roof and the bullfrog. Cheers, Dad.
~ Wendy

Kathleen Popa said...

Oh my goodness. Wendy, you've made my day. I would have loved to have met your father.

Three months. I'm so sorry for your loss. But also delighted that you had such a man for a father. Thank you for telling us about him.

Nicole said...

So sorry this wound is fresh, Wendy. Sounds like a delightful fun-loving dad.

Unique book characters: Star in Kristen Heitzmann's trilogy Secrets, Unforgotten, Echoes; "Grams" in my novel Destination (a feisty 80 year old woman who was not a grandmother because both of her sons were killed in battle); Tim Downs' The Bug Man to name a few.

I'm afraid I'm the most outrageous of all my friends. I worked and saved my money for a year after a year of college so I could go to Europe to find a British film star. I did too. ;) Find him, I mean. That was a long time ago . . .

Jan Cline said...

I guess I would have to say my Mom was a good character to model in a book (which I am doing by the way). The stories of her beating up kids in school because they made fun of her brother, and as a nurse walking out of surgery because the surgeon swore at her, and joining the Army Nurse Corps, are stories I am using. There are interesting character models all around us if we pay attention to them. I think it's fascinating!

Lynn Dean said...

Wendy's stories reminded me of my dad, a staunch Episcopalian, who used to run around the house with a collection of bells on Christmas Eve so my sister and I would go to sleep--the theory being that Santa would not risk being caught if children were still awake. No lederhosen in our house, but there is one bright red flannel vest that makes its appearance every year...

And Kathleen, your story reminded me of my grandfather. His father was an Episcopal priest, but he and his brother were certainly "sons of thunder." When the family went back east for a funeral, they left the brothers to look after the house in Texas. The two teenagers ate in a matter of days everything their mother had cooked ahead to last them. Hungry, they decided to sell her piano to raise funds. (It was her pride and joy, brought overland by wagon.) There was plenty of money then. They shared a keen interest in the oil drilling going on in the area, so they used the extra money to buy a stick of dynamite which they set off just outside of town. The city fathers all went running when it blew--not to the blast site, but toward the courthouse, where they kept a still in the basement! :)

Kathleen Popa said...

Nicole, for some reason I'm not surprised. Which film star?

Jan, your mom sounds like a kick. Yes, my point exactly. People are just interesting.

Lynn, you remind me of a relative/ancestor who ran off with the family silver and disappeared from Colorado off the face of the earth - until the advent of the internet, when a cousin found his death certificate. He died in Michigan, I think - a long way from home. I wonder why?

Anonymous said...

Katy, what a fun post. It's started my day on a high note. Of the many, many characters I've read about, your Una stands out among the best. And I love Patti's Francie from The Queen of Sleepy Eye. I drew my character, Winnie, in Lying on Sunday, from my step-grandmother, who was so much fun to be with. As a young teen, my girlfriends and I would spend the night with her, poring through the pile of movie magazines she always had lying around, and listening to her stories about Hollywood, where she once lived. The thing I always remember about her was her laugh. To this young woman it seemed she laughed her way through life.

Latayne C Scott said...

i think I've commented about this before, but when Andy McGuire was editing Latter-day Cipher, he said, "You know, not all your characters have to be quirky." I responded, "You don't know my relatives."

Among them and my acquaintances are a woman who barks like a dog, someone who's had necrotizing pancreatitis, a woman speaks like May-ree, a hispanic man who changed his name to Jett Johanson, a man who cut open his pregnant girlfriend, someone who shudders before speaking, a man who flushed his paycheck down the toilet to spite his wife, a man who loaded his friend's household goods onto a stock trailer and sold them while the friend was on vacation, an estranged husband who would periodically steal all his ex-wife's cooking pots -- shall I go on? There's more!

Bonnie Grove said...

LOVE LOVE LOVE these stories. Wendy, what a great character you Dad was. Thank you for sharing his joy with us. Big hugs to you.

Nicole: Yes. Who? Spill!

Jan: I like your Mom. Very much.

Lynn: I'm so glad your grandfather was allowed to live out his days. Especially after that piano stint. WOW!

I'm a student of the theater, grew up with others just like me. It was difficult to out character my circle of friends. But I was up to the challenge.

Stuck in a traffic jam one Saturday, I tied one end of a very long scarf around my waist, handed the other end to my sister (who was driving) and got out of the car. I was an astronaut out for a space walk. I swooped and dipped in slow motion while walking around the car, kicking tires and pretending to drink Tang. My sister faithful clutched my scarf (air line) and laughed her head off. When the traffic unsnarled ahead, no one around our car moved. All the other drivers were too busy laughing and giving me the thumbs up.

Once, I walked through the McDonald's drive thru (there are rules about that now) and leaned into the window. "What's McGood?" A pimply faced worker who had obviously been working the late night drive thru for awhile simply rolled his eyes and said, "Give me a break."
"McBreak," I reminded him.

I could go on and on.

Much later, I moved to a small town and opened an ice cream shop. Life got very interesting. My first published work is a short story called The Stuckville Cafe featured in an anthology titled Hot Apple Cider (for those interested:http://www.amazon.com/Hot-Apple-Cider-Words-Heart/dp/0978496302/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1278520343&sr=1-1)
It's written as a fiction story - but nothing about it is fiction. :)
My time in the ice cream shop has provided me with characters to last a lifetime.

Christa Allan said...

One of the great blessings of living in the South is the abundance of delightfully quirky people.

I, of course, am not one of them.

Latayne C Scott said...

I humbly hand over my Patti Hill Hands-Down Funniest Award to Bonnie o' the Spaceship Sash.

Bonnie Grove said...

*Runs laps World Cup style, fist pumping the sk.* WOO HOO

*Comes to her senses*


Kathleen Popa said...

What fantastic stories! You see why we must write.

Bonnie, Woo Hoo!

Tina said...

I love this, Kathleen. I can think of all kinds of "characters" in my beautiful family. :-)

Nicole said...

Bonnie, you space walking spirit! Oh so funny. My kind of drama queen.

You guys probably wouldn't know him, but he rocked my world. It should be mentioned while I was chasing off to Europe after him, he was in California marrying a ditzy starlet that he later divorced and who never made it in films. Bitter? Not me. Anyway, I saw him on my last day in London in his agent's office. He said good morning to me. Hey, it was a big deal!

He's dead now. He passed away during the making of a film from a heart attack. His name is David Hemmings. He blew this young girl away in Michaelangelo Antonioni's film Blow Up.

Nikole Hahn said...

In the novel I am writing (part of a 6 book series), the first two characters you meet is Rose and Sarah. Sarah is Rose's mother. She is eccentric. Since my novel is Christian fantasy, she is also secretly a mystic (followers of the Accepted Texts) and Rose's surrogate mother until Sarah can return Rose home to her real mom. Rose doesn't know Sarah is not her real mom. One of Sarah's eccentricities is her cup of black goo. It was inspired by a friend who is into holistic and organic stuff. This friend came to our house bringing with her some green drink in a jar that had stuff floating in it. I am forever grateful for the inspiration for Sarah. It provided humor and fond memories for Rose.

Marcia Lee Laycock said...

Having lived in the Yukon for many years, I met many "characters," some of them with names like Black Mike and Hang Out Harvey. One of my favourites was a guy named Stewart. He purchased two long-horned cattle once but didn't have a fenced area to keep them in. He found one wandering the countryside once but didn't have any rope, so he took his pants off and used them to tie it to a tree. Fortunately he was wearing long underwear, so when he flagged down a grader operator that came along he simply hopped in and told him to go slow in case they spooked the beast. He and his brother once dropped in for a visit and stayed 4days. Guess they liked my cooking. :)

Samantha Bennett said...

I have a friend who once, on a dare, performed the entire Baby Got Back song at a restaurant. Quite the character. :)

Latayne C Scott said...

My husband once saw two high school kids filming a "documentary" for a class assignment at a Baskin Robbins and to our horror insisted on breaking out into a full-voiced version of "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." He didn't stop even when the two kids nudged each other and left the store.