Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Matter of Character-Part II

Where do characters come from ? The answer is simple - everywhere! Every person you know, the strangers you observe at the mall or coffee shop, your family, and of course, youself, give you the perfect material for creating characters. My character Diana Lee was inspired by a voice teacher who recently hired me to accompany her students for a major vocal competition

In her article, Character: Casting Shadow, from the Gotham Writer's Workshop Guide to Writing Fiction, Brandi Reissenweber, cautions us that if we use people we know for characters, we have to be willing and able to "use creative invention." In other words, we mustn't drive ourselves crazy trying to make our characters act just the way their "real life" counterpart would. "Let youself fictionalize these people," Reissenweber advises. "Transform them into characters that suit the needs of your story."

This is where the real fun of characterization begins. With the spark of an idea for a character, I now have complete control over who this person is and what she will become. But in order to create someone believeable to my reader, I have to know my character inside and out. Reissenweber offers a very thorough set of questions to help me mold character into the person I want and need her to become.

  • Describe the character's physical appearance, distinguishing characteristics or mannerisms. Diana Lee is a large woman, in her mid-40's, big boned and somewhat overweight. Her long wavy, hair, which was once true blonde, has now turned a muddy shade of dishwater. When she's teaching, she wears it pulled back and captured with a large barrette. She wears 70's style horned rimmed glasses, with thick, "coke bottle" lenses, indicating her poor eyesight, and is constantly pushing them up onto her nose.

  • What is the character's family background? Diana Lee has two sisters, both of whom live nearby, but with whom she isn't particularly close. She is, however, very close to her neice Laura, as well as to Laura's children. Laura often helps Diana Lee in caring for Harriet, Diana Lee's mother, who has been immobilized following a stroke. Diana Lee returned to the suburban town where she was born five years prior; she's currently living in the home where she grew up, caring for her mother. She spent some years after college living in Italy, where she was working as a professional singer and trying to "make it" in the world of opera.

  • Delving deeper into the character's psyche, what is her biggest fear? what makes her laugh out loud? has she ever been in love? Diana Lee's biggest fear is that her career is over, and that she has never acheived the kind of recognition of her talent that she feels she deserves. She is amused by little - she takes a rather sardonic view of her students, and finds their attempts to create art "amusing." Her biggest pleasure comes from being with her young niece and nephew, and from playing with her cat, Isadora. She has been invovled in relationships with men during the time she spent in Italy - she would say she was "never in love" with any of them, when the truth is that she never allowed any relationship to progress to that point for fear of being sidetracked from her ambitions.

Reisenweber also offers additional, less obvious questions to consider about the character, such as~

  • What is in the character's refrigerator? on her nightstand? in her bookshelves? on her CD player?
  • Describe the charcter's feet~what are her shoes and socks like? does she wear shoes at all?
  • What sights and smells would your character associate with their childhood kitchen?
  • It's Sunday morning~what is your character doing? going to church? reading the New York Times in a coffee shop? lounging in bed with a lover?
  • What is your character's strongest childhood memory?
  • Your character is getting ready for a night out ~where is she going? what is she wearing? who is she going out with?

The answers to these in-depth questions allow the writer to create a real, three dimensional person. Not all of these characteristics will present themselves to the reader, and in fact, many of them probably should not. "But the more you know your characters, the more you will be able to present them on the page in a believable way," Reissenweber advises.

Obviously, a lot of thought and attention go into the creation of characters, much more so than I had realized. These are all the kinds of details that make characters jump off the page and into the reader's mind and heart, make them the sort of people the reader simply has to know more about.

Monday, May 28, 2007

A Matter of Character-Part I

When I read novels, I'm all about the characters. I'm simply fascinated to read about other peoples lives and delve into what makes them tick - even if those people are completely imaginary. It's the characters in a book that keep me reading avidly, just to see what happens to them. So as I dabble around with writing fiction, naturally I'm interested in what it takes to make characters believable and interesting, and mostly, how to infuse them with the spirit that makes them come alive in the readers mind.

I've been reading and working through the exercises in the Gotham Writer's Workshop Guide to Writing Fiction. In an article entitled Character: Casting Shadow, Brandi Reissenweber defines the elements involved in creating characters. First, they must have a "burning desire." They have to want something, whether it's something major, like the lead in a Broadway production, or something seemingly less earth shaking, such as learning to make a killer chocolate souffle. This is the desire that will motivate their actions throughout the story, and from which the story line itself will develop.

**my main character is a middle aged woman, once an aspiring opera singer whose career never really took off. she now teaches voice to college students, and her prize pupil, Ashleigh, is a young blind woman whom she is grooming for the stage. her "burning desire" is for this young woman to succeed where she did not - in effect, to "make it" for her.

Characters have to be complex, neither a complete goody two shoes, nor a total dastardly villian. No matter how bad or good someone is, there must always be an element of an opposing characteristic, which will become evident in some way during the pursuit of their desire.

**my character, let's call her Diana Lee, is the model of dignity and decorum in her teaching and her dealing with the public. she is warm, intelligent, vivacious, yet can sometimes be outspoken and a bit of a prima donna. the real contrast in her character becomes evident in her relationship with her invalid mother, whom she cares for, and with whom she is impatient and occasionally cruel.

Every character must have the ability to change, and their potential for change is often the culminating point of the story. The reader doesn't always have to see the change come to fruition, but must be aware that the possibility exists, and that the character recognizes their capability for change.

**Diana Lee will realize she must let go of her dream for Ashleigh when the young woman decides to pursue a career as a teacher herself, and not a performer. At this point, Diana will come to terms with the disappointments in her own life and accept herself as she is. She will also develop a better relationship with her mother, as she comes to understand the ways in which her mother's dreams were not realized as she had hoped.

Where do characters come from, and how do you get to know them inside and out? I'll let you know when I finish reading the chapter!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sunday Scribblings-Simple

It should be such a simple thing, Diana thought. Arrange for a minister, order a cake and some champagne, wear a nice dress or suit, carry a bouquet of white roses, and there you have it. A wedding.

She gazed dolefully at the display Peter had set before her -huge books filled with hundreds of sample invitations, complete with matching cocktail napkins, coasters, matchbooks, and swizzle sticks. Menus from caterers, sample CD's of bands promising the diversity of disco to swing. The only thing that captured Diana's interest were the DVD's promising to immortalize every minute of your "big day" so you could relive it in the comfort of your living room for years to come. It might come in handy, she thought, popping the DVD into the player to remind yourself of the vows you made, see the starry eyed gaze of your beloved once again, after it had glazed over from years of paying bills and taking out garbage.

"Look at this, Diana," Peter was saying, pointing excitedly at the brochure from St. Andrew's Hall, the historic seminary they (more accurately, he) had chosen for the momentous occasion.
"They have a bagpiper who will "pipe us out" after the ceremony, and then we can be driven around the grounds in one of three classic cars - a 1914 Model A, a 1924 Stutz Bearcat, or a 1938 Packard convertible!"

Diana shuddered inwardly, imagining their guests standing around outside listening to the wail of bagpipes playing Scotland the Brave while she and Peter stuffed themselves into the backseat of an old car and rode around like two movie stars on parade. "Fascinating," she replied with a weak smile.

Peter turned toward her. "You aren't very gung ho about this, are you?"

How perceptive of you, she thought. We've lived together for ten years now, and you're finally beginning to understand me.

"I was just thinking of something a little more~understated?" she faltered. "Something simple."

"Simple!" Peter exclaimed. "Why would you want your first wedding to be simple?"

Diana felt the rising flush of a hot flash, predictably induced by emotional stress. As a wave of nausea passed over her, she rose quickly and dashed to ther refrigerator for a bottle of water which she held to her forehead. Breathing deeply, she waited for it to pass.

Her first wedding had actually taken place 25 years before, and it had been anything but simple. The elaborateness of the affair astounded her even today, as she remembered choosing "only" seven bridesmaids from among her bevy of friends, deciding on gold or silver rimmed china, debating whether to engrave "black tie optional" at the bottom of the parchment invitations. "You girls today," her grandmother had said, shaking her head, "you're so busy with the wedding that you forget about the marriage."

Sure enough, somewhere, in the midst of all that planning, combined with the stress of constant dieting so she could fasten the 47 seed pearl buttons up the back of her dress, she had realized that she really didn't love Trevor, didn't really even like him very much, and certainly did not want to live with him the rest of her life. By then, with the final dress fitting only two days away, the chocolate fountain on order, 275 rsvp cards piled neatly on her desk waiting to be sorted for dinner choices, and a roomful of gifts wrapped in white and silver paper waiting to be opened like, it was much to late to back out.

The brevity of that marriage, over before it had even begun, had never seemed worth mentioning to Peter. In truth, Diana was a little ashamed of that moment in her life when she had allowed her common sense to fly out the window and succumbed to the pagentry of planning a "dream" wedding.

The hormonally induced heat at last fading from her body, Diana walked back into the living room, breathing deeply. "Let's face it, Peter," she said. "I'm much to old to play the blushing bride. We've been together a long time already - why make such a big production out of this?"

"Precisely because we've been "together" for such a long time," he said, gently taking her hands in his. "We're simultaneously celebrating the union we've already achieved and proclaiming our intention to go forward into the future."

"It's not that simple," she told him, gazing ernestly into the dark eyes of this gentle man, the man who had supported her through the death of both her parents, nursed her back to health after her hysterectomy, shared her joy when her radio show was picked up for syndication and her first book was published. "I want this day to be personal - just between us," she said. "I don't want to spend the next six months creating this fantasy wedding, and then spending the entire wedding day worrying about whether everything will go just right." She squeezed Peter's hand, as if to underscore the sincerity of her feeling. "I don't want to get so caught up in the wedding that I forget about the marriage."

Peter's gaze bore into hers, a familiar intense stare meaning "do you know what you're saying?" Diana stared back, firm in her conviction that, this time, the event itself would not eclipse the motivation for it.

Resigned, Peter nodded slightly and released her hands. "Allright then," he said. "I was just trying to make it a special day. I've wanted you to marry me for so long now, perhaps I did get carried away."

What could be more special, Diana thought, bringing her lips to his in a grateful kiss, than a relationship like this, based on love and mutual respect, with such concern for the other's well being and happiness. That's what marriage was all about. Really, it was as simple as that.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sunday Scribblings-Mask

"How many times have I told you not to wear that idiotic mask to the table?" From deep within the hollowed latex eye sockets, Jenna could see her mother's slender fingers tipped in deep crimson reaching toward her face. Reflexively, Jenna raised her small hands to protect her face, but not before her mother snatched the mask away from her forehead and dashed it to the floor.

Jenna shivered, recalling the sudden feeling of dangerous exposure that caused her to shrink within her 10 year old self, lower her eyes, and try to become as small as possible. Her eyes had fixed on the nearly translucent china plate in front of her as it rested on her grandmother's Irish linen tablecloth. She had reached for her fork as slowly and silently as possible.

"Not that one!" came her mother's razor sharp cry, the one Jenna tried to avoid whenever possible. "The large fork is for your meal, the small one on the farthest left for your salad. Why can't you learn that?" Jenna longed for the mask to protect her from the cold disdain in her mother's stare. She had chosen the Cleopatra mask that day, the dark beauty of this ancient queen the perfect counterpart to her mother's white blonde hair and icy expression.

The masks had so often saved her, even though her mother either complained bitterly about them or, depending on the number of Gin and Tonic's she had consumed, ripped them from Jenna's face. She continually threatened to destroy Jenna's entire collection, words that struck fear into through Jenna's heart.

"One of these days, missy, you'll come home and all those ugly faces you hide behind will be gone, gobbled up by the big green garbage truck."

Jenna quaked at the thought of Princess Diana, Cinderalla, Scarlett O'Hara, even Wonder Woman (who wasn't actually a favorite) being crushed and shredded in the jaws of the huge waste disposal truck roaming the back alley behind their house. Somehow, though, she had felt sure her mother wouldn't carry out this threat. As much as she complained about the different faces Jenna wore, they were easier for her to look at than Jenna's real face, the one that people always said looked just like her fathers, with it's smoky dark eyes and olive skin.

Sitting at her own table now, some 20 years later, Jenna picked at the small salad before her. Perhaps if her father hadn't dissappeared before she had been born, things would have been different for her and her mother, she thought, as she had so many times before. As it was, Jenna had grown accustomed to the saftey she felt behind the masks, protected somehow from the contempt of the woman who should have loved her most, hoping one of the persona she chose each day would be the one her mother would find acceptable, even pleasing.

Jenna rose from her seat and scraped the remains of her salad into the garbage. Her small apartment was silent, save for the ticking of the clock which told her she had dawdled too long, lost in those memories of unhappier times. She had promised her mother she would visit today, although she was quite certain the woman had lost all concept of time, along with most of her other faculties, her brain ravished by years of alcohol and now dementia. Stopping to button her coat, Jenna glanced at her reflection in the mirror that hung beside her front door.

Yes, she thought, quite satisfied with what she saw, it was a good day for Cleopatra.

Friday, May 18, 2007

I Met Someone Today

For the first time today, I experienced a feeling I've only read about up until now~a character, inserting themselves into my head, popping into my subconscious while I'm clearing the kitchen after breakfast, peeking in as I'm putting on tennis shoes to go for a walk, interrupting me as I'm talking to my husband about plans for the day.

Where did she come from, this woman with slightly sad dark eyes and long auburn hair, streaked with gray? She smiles at me, but there is pain behind the smile, a sorrow that comes from unimaginable loss.

Last night I was thinking about a friend who lost her son to suicide about 18 months ago. I've written about Jeff and his impact on my life, and while I still think about him quite often, its his mother Vicky for whom I feel the pain. You see, Jeff got his wish, at least I'm supposing he did, awful as it seems to me. But Vicky ~ she's the one who lost so much, whose life he changed in an inalterable and cruel way.

This woman who keeps nagging my mind is not Vicky, but her pain seems somehow the same. There is an unmistable aura of it surrounding her, and I find myself thinking about some way to help her dispel this darkness that engulfs her.

I think there's a story here...a long one, perhaps even a book.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Last Chance Kid

Carol hoped she hadn't made a mistake, forcing Chuck to come on this field trip. After 20 years of teaching, Chuck was one of the few students who had confounded every technique in Carol's book of teacher tricks. Rude, angry, insubordinate, disrespectful, he never missed an opportunity to flaunt authority or buck the system. When his counselor had begged Carol to allow him in the Choraliers, she was reluctant to say the least.

"I can't have unruly kids in that group," she warned.

"Come on, Carol," Lee Washington had cajoled. "I've seen you work miracles with kids before. This is pretty much his last chance before he hits the streets."

Always a sucker for a "last chance kid," Carol had reluctantly agreed. In the three months since school started, Chuck had made no progress toward assimilating himself into her advanced group of singers. He blew off rehearsals, stood in the back of the room with his arms folded when the choreographer was teaching steps, and wore a chip of his shoulder the size of Dallas. So, she sighed, watching the kids pile out of their cars on this sunny December afternoon, bringing him to perform for their annual program at Ridgeway Convalescent Center was probably a huge mistake.

The choir members trekked happily inside, familiar with the punch and cookie reception they knew would be waiting for them. Eager and excited, they passed through a gauntlet of elderly, infirm residents waiting silently in their wheelchairs, reaching out gnarled and trembling fingers to touch the girls bright dance dresses, shake the boys firm hands.

Taking their positions in the middle of the dining room, the choir smiled, sang, shared their youthful exuberance with unguarded selflessness. Carol let her eyes run the gamut of singers as they finished their last song, noticing Chuck's sullen look in the farthest corner of the bass section. His eyes remained downcast and hooded, his mouth barely moving, even as they concluded with Silent Night, that most familiar of all carols.

Their set done, the students moved around the room one last time, bending down to greet those who made eye contact, saying a few words here and there in exaggeratedly loud voices. Then, hastily throwing on coats and hats, they were rushing through the sliding doors, heading off to one more performance at the local mall.

Carol took a quick head count as they passed into the frosty air. Chuck was missing. Had he managed to sneak out the back, heading for the nearest arcade or even bar? Snatching up her car keys, Carol quickly turned toward her car. Suddenly, she heard loud guffaws emanating from the dining room behind her. There he was, his large, bulky frame seated comfortably on the sofa between two wizend grey haired women, laughing and joking. Both women were grinning broadly, and one reached up to gently pat his large back. "Such a sweet boy!" she exclaimed.

Noticing Carol's amazed look, he rose hastily from his seat. "Ms. Woodward," he said, "I'll be right there. I just wanted to speak to these ladies for a moment."

"That's fine, Chuck," Carol said, doing her best not to sound as dumbfounded as she felt.

"You know, I just love old people," he confided, shoving his arms into the sleeve of his padded down jacket. "My grandma, she's the one that raised me. She lives in a nursing home now, too, and I go see here every chance I get."

Carol followed him to the cars, watching as the group he was riding with called out joyfully for him to "Hustle up, bud!"

Maybe Chuck's last chance would pay off after all, she thought.

Written for an exercise in the Gotham Writers Workshop on Fiction Writing

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Sunday Scribblings-Second Chance

The young woman seated at the desk had barely reacted when Kate said, "Well, I can't have it." She probably heard that same statement a dozen times a day, maybe more. From the looks of the waiting room, there were dozens of young women in Kate's shoes, slumped dejectedly in the molded plastic chairs, waiting for a stranger to tell them the results of a question they already knew the answer to.

"Then you'll want to schedule an appointment as soon as possible," the nurse replied, reaching for an oversized black appointment book. "You're already 10 weeks along."

September 30. That was the day Kate had chosen, the one day of many empty squares in the clinic's calendar. Kate stared again at the masthead of the discarded New York Times she had picked up from the counter after ordering her usual Cafe Mocha - September 30, 2006. Thirty years ago today.

What would it be like to have a 30 year old daughter, Kate wondered, settling into her usual table by the back window. For some reason, she was convinced of the femaleness of that unwanted child, even though her body had produced four male children in the three decades since. She smiled, thinking of her boys, each one so much like his father~big, masculine men, who loved ribald jokes and roughhousing, and whose idea of cultural entertainment was James Bond movies and Bruce Springsteen concerts. They were good men, all of them, strong yet tenderhearted, always around when she needed a hand. One or the other of them stopped by nearly every day now, since Robert had died. Usually they would pretend to be looking for a handout-a fresh cup of coffee, some homemade cookies or cake, a meatloaf sandwich if it happened to be lunchtime. She knew they were just checking on her, making sure she wasn't lonely, rambling around alone in their big house.

Kate sipped her warm coffee and reflexively wiped a dab of whipped cream from the tip of her nose. Funny thing, Robert had really wanted her to have that baby. Even though it wasn't his, even though its due date was just days shy of the elaborate wedding they had already finished planning.

"I can't have it!" she had cried out to him. "My mother would never forgive me!"

"Kate, you're 23 years old, and about to be married," he had said. "Isn't it time you stopped worrying about what your mother will think?"

But that's what daughters did, Kate thought. They worried about their mothers - what they thought, whether they approved. Kate wondered again about this daughter she might have had, the one that would be almost 30 years old now. Would they be close, going to concerts together, meeting for coffee in this very Starbucks to talk about the latest bestseller they had read? Or would they have butted heads from the very beginning, ending up as family but not friends, walking on eggshells with one another, avoiding revelations that would be greeted with disapproval or scorn.

Kate shook her head, clearing these cobwebs from her mind. Too late now, she told herself, briskly turning to the editorial section. It's water under the bridge, as her own mother used to say. "You don't get second chances with life," she would warn, usually when Kate had made a decision she didn't agree with.

Maybe not, Kate thought, tucking the blanket tighter around her granddaughter, who had been sleeping peacefully in the stroller while Kate finished her coffee. She smiled wistfully at the tiny face, full of possibility. Maybe there are no second chances, she thought, but at least there are new opportunities.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Seeking Shelter

Clearly, someone had been living here, Devyn realized, staring at dirty dishes piled haphazardly in the sink. The fossilized remnants of canned pasta and beans were evident, even from where he stood in the doorway. A wide ray of afternoon sunshine beamed like a spotlight through the grimy window above the counter, illuminating the disarray left behind by the cottage’s mysterious inhabitant.

There was an odor as well, Devyn noticed as he stepped further into the room, the pungent odor of unwashed skin, the sour, musty aroma of damp towels left to dry in humid lake breezes. His mother had despised that smell, warned them against it every time they returned from the lake. “Hang those towels out on the line!” she’d cry, usually from her vantage point in front of this very sink, where she was likely washing dishes, or preparing one of the many fruits and vegetables their father might have gathered in from his garden that morning. “They’ll get to smelling if you bring them in the house.”

Devyn grimaced, thinking how much she would hate the smell of this place right now, her constant battle against dirt and dampness over the years of summers gone for naught. While he and his brother had scampered through the woods behind the cottage, relishing their seemingly innocent games of war and private eye, she had remained inside working furiously at her cleanliness project for the day– sweeping sand from the floors, cleaning foggy lake breeze residue from windows, removing ceiling light fixtures that became the final resting place for tiny black bugs and moths.

Gingerly, he picked an orange plastic coffee cup out of the sink, -melamine, he thought it was called. “Perfect for cottage use,” his mother had said with satisfaction, purchasing a set of six at the local Ben Franklin. Now grimy and discolored inside, a gritty residue of instant coffee granules cemented to the bottom, Devyn let it fall from his fingertips, and clatter back into the sink. He could recall his mother quickly downing a half cup of instant coffee from this cup every morning, then hurrying off to her "chores." Why did she never take the time to sit comfortably on the back porch, watching the sun rise over the lake, sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee? It seemed to Devyn as if his mother and father had never really lived here - between his mother's cleaning and his father's gardening, the cottage was a workplace, rather than a place to enjoy life.

Five summers had passed since his mother had been here, the cottage carefully closed and locked that last autumn morning. Devyn could picture his father, walking through the rooms with his tattered checklist in hand, carefully consulting the list of duties that must be performed before closing the place for the winter, not knowing he would sicken and die before spring's arrival. Almost immediately after, Devyn's mother had begun her descent into the neverland of dementia that had by now claimed all memory of this summer cottage and the times she had spent there.

Devyn knew they should have rented the place out, not let it sit empty all these summers. The local sheriff had warned him about “squatters”. “Folks ‘round here are hurtin’ these days,” he’d said when Devyn had called and asked him to keep an eye out. “And some are desperate enough to seek shelter anywhere, even if it don’t belong to ‘em.”

Whoever was living here must be desperate indeed, Devyn thought, turning his back on the sink filled with crusty dishes and focusing his eyes on the door in front of him. He didn’t bother to lock it behind him – after all, someone was clearly living here now.

~written in response to this short story contest