Dear Mr. and Mrs. David:
Heidi is a bright child, imaginative and enthusiastic. She’s read every story in the reading corner, some of them twice. It’s our understanding she’s not a big fan of Fun With Dick And Jane as she has concerns about its lack of multiculturalism. Additionally, Heidi has some doubts about the intellect of Jane, funny funny Jane, and wonders if the ASPCA shouldn’t be alerted to the family’s gross negligence of their dog, Spot. Also, in his most recent episode, “Look,” said Dick. “See it go. See it go up.” Heidi feels the boy has developed a rather unnatural obsession with things that go up. One that is likely to put Dick in therapy for the better part of his adulthood.
Be that as it may, we here at Fox Meadow Elementary find Heidi a pleasure to teach. We always enjoy watching her play House with the other kindergarteners. Recently however, we’ve noticed a trend in her behavior that we wish to bring to your attention.
Whenever it’s time to play house, Heidi is always the first to come up with a story, one that generally involves her as the mother while the other students are assigned lesser roles. Heidi likes to be the woman-in-charge and is very adept at telling the other children what to do. We’ve tried suggesting she be the visiting Aunt for the day, but somehow the story still ends up revolving around her.
We don’t wish to alarm you, but in our experience this behavior is likely to result in one of two things. Either she will be a dictator hell-bent on world domination or, she will become a writer in order to control all aspects of the characters that inhabit her brain.
Don’t be dismayed; I hear taking up golf in one’s golden years can be significant relief from the inadequacies of one’s children.
The Principal and Staff at Fox Meadow Elementary
This slightly exaggerated version of my report card from kindergarten tells us a number of things. First, it’s possible I may have emulated Darla from The Little Rascals as a child. Second, I might have also been a bit of a bossypants. (That’s Ms. Bossypants to you, incidentally.) So how did my time directing and starring in Fox Meadow’s internationally acclaimed version of House effect me? I’m stuck believing I can control these characters I’ve created. I am in charge. After all, Darla merely winked at Alfalfa and he was under her spell. Of course my creations do what I want them to do, don’t they?
Ay, there’s the rub, as Willy Shakespeare would put it.
Recently, while working on a story you haven’t seen yet, I discovered my main character has a potty mouth. I love words, and although I’ve been known to toss out a few expletives in my time, I don’t generally create characters that curse a lot. This guy however, has issues. He’s well read mind you, but tortured. His name is Darryl, but don’t bother saying hello, he won’t respond. I tried to suggest to him that there were other ways he might express himself. Suffice it to say, he told me to go f*ck myself and that was the end of that.
Darryl’s cursing isn’t a false affectation. He’s always struggling for control over an unusual problem in his life and never succeeding. At the moment when the story starts his frustration is at an all time high. But the only reason I know all that is because I’m willing to investigate inside his head.
Creating characters can be great fun, but it can also be truly painful. It’s not just about what I do to them, it’s also about a willingness to cross the divide into their pain, confusion, suffering and happiness. It’s challenging to climb inside a character’s skin and feel what they feel, but necessary. Yes, I am the writer; I am in charge, but only to a certain degree. Once I take the risk to experience a character’s emotions, I discover details I didn’t know were there in the first place. For me, if I don’t feel something, my reader probably won’t either.
And that ain’t no bullsh*t.
Have you written willful characters like this? Do you dig deep into the moods of your creations, or shy away when things get messy? I’d love to hear about it.
Incidentally, I just posted a funny YouTube video of good ol’ Darla in action on my Facebook Fan page. (Did you know I have one of those?) So if you’d like to become a fan please click here and hit the like button. Darla’s rendition of “I’ll Never Say Never” is very entertaining.
Very nice. Yes writers seem to share some control issues, which hopefully come out most in our stories.
It seems that quite often we’re the same as adults as we were as kids.(just with more neuroses, in many cases).
Thanks for This.
John! Saved your message from my spam folder, don’t know why it ended up there. Yes, no doubt in my mind we are all just taller versions (well, not me really, still pretty low to the ground, but still) of who we were as kids. Glad you liked the post. Thanks for stopping by.
Love it! I have always been a bit of a bossypants, myself. Of course, I preferred the characters in the books and in my head to the kids I was bossing around:) I say this, if being Darla is what has made you the wonderful writer that you are today….GO DARLA!GO DARLA! GO!!!
Aww, thank you for the kind words. I don’t recall myself as bossy. I just remember no matter where the game of pretend was, either in school or in my home, I had *very* specific ideas about how it should go. And as long as my little friends did what I told them to do…everything would work out fine.
Yeah, bossy, really freakin’ bossy. 🙂
Okay, Bossypants. As always, you are funny (LOVE the comparison to Darla; oh, the Little Rascals how I miss ye) but beyond that, I really needed the subject of this post today.
I paused in my current WIP to read what I had so far (mistake? I know some people promote finishing the entire manuscript first; just push on through! but I needed a look. It’s a complicated plot with four main characters and past/present orientations).
As I was reading, I knew I liked the basic story but until I read this post, I hadn’t put my finger on what was missing. Now I know: Connection to the characters.
DAMN this writing thing is hard. I sometimes wish I could just do it and not worry about doing it well. (which I suppose I COULD do, but I want someone else to eventually read what I wrote. There’s MY rub…)
I know I need to get inside my characters’ heads more. Perhaps cut out one or two so I have more time to explore their depths at length.
You’ve given me food for thought here ~ so thanks. I have a lot of work to do.
(p.s. I used to think it was totally pretentious of authors to claim their characters “wouldn’t behave” – When a writer would say, “She just wouldn’t do what I wanted her to do,” I’d shout “YOU’RE the author! You write the stuff! MAKE her do it!” Now I know.)
Do you know how happy it makes me that something I said was useful to you? I really mean it. I get a bit squeamish when I offer “advice”. I mean, who am I to presume to know anything? So I’m glad it helped.
I’ve heard the thing about not going back to read as well. With short stories I feel I must go back and forth to maintain a kind of rhythm. But perhaps that’s just me. With novels it’s a tug of war to carry on or check back. At certain points I think you do need to go back, since as you point out, plot line can get complicated. But I think the trick is not to start re-writing once you go back, even if revisions are necessary. Take notes about what you want to do, but keep moving on from where you are.
Aw crap, I sound like I’m giving advice again. Ok, I’ll be quiet now.
Another wonderful posting, Heidi ~ humorous but incredibly insightful too. I agree wholeheartedly … writing characters can be/should be an emotionally charged experience. Otherwise, there is surely a falseness about them if you, the author, have never come to ‘know’ them.
I have just written a poem based on a painting & suffered significantly whilst getting to know the ‘characters’ within that work of art. But if I had not done that I believe the poem would have been hollow & dishonest. The only way to create characters is to court them, party with them, even go mad with them … have a relationship with them to the point where your feelings respond to their moods each time you write about them.
And yes, learning about your characters inevitably leads you to a deeper understanding about your self.
Loved the kindergarten report at the top of your story ~ thanks again for yet another predictably entertaining & thought-provoking post.
I have the best commenters around. 🙂 Yes, I can imagine what you went through to write that incredible poem.
What I think is very important and so challenging is learning how to shake off inhabiting those characters once you are done. I’m not certain how that happens. I imagine many creative people of all shapes and sizes struggle with that issue.
That sounds a lot like Method acting…which I don’t happen to like. Going mad with your character is never a good idea (look what happened to Heath Ledger), but maybe in writing it’s all right because you don’t actually have to pretend to be the character onstage…
I actually was thinking about method acting when I wrote that reply. But I assume artists, writers, the whole lot of us at times get stuck in the mood states created by our characters. Just have to have healthy enough mental boundaries to shake it off, I guess.
I know where you’re coming from with this one. I don’t like to write expletive-filled narrative either, and I don’t like to read stories filled with gratuitous cursing and swearing, but sometimes, the characters demand it. When you are fleshing out the characters, you want them to seem real, and just like in real life, some of them are gonna swear. Your p.s. at the end is bang on too.
Perhaps this is why I shy away from writing stories that take place in a modern time? I think I prefer the language of bygone days. 😉 Thanks for stopping by Chris.
Wish I had been bossy in childhood. Sigh. Would have made everything so much better. But I was the “angelic” little drone. Nuns loved me.
Don’t think they’d feel the same way today.
Anyway, don’t think there’s much you can do about Darryl. Except let him tell his story, and in his own way. Yep, you go along in life thinking you’re the boss and then…bam…your characters chant, “You’re not the boss of me!”
Darla is such a cutie. And scary.
In true paradoxical fashion, I will tell you that while I was very bossy when it came to pretend, I was in fact incredibly docile, obedient and desperately eager to please in most other ways. Teachers loved me.
Yes, you’re right about Darryl. He has his own way of expressing himself and that’s that.
Darla is channeling some starlet from the twenties, it is just wild.
Heidi, your posts are always a delightful mix of clever, playful, funny, and smart. I love this one, too. I happen to have been a bossy pants as a child myself. (And according to the closest around me, still am. I assert that I just do what needs doing, but hey, tomato/tomato, huh?) But then again, I was also eager to please and a model student. It would be pretty interesting to do some sort of study about character traits of writers. There is no single writer personality type, I’m sure, but there might be certain characteristics that have a higher prevalence (bossiness, perfectionism, and neuroticism all come to mind…).
Anyway, yes, your point about delving deep into even uncomfortable characters is spot on. And getting into the horror genre, I can tell you that sometimes that exercise takes you places you REALLY don’t want to go. But I go there, because I agree with Peter that “Otherwise, there is surely a falseness about them.” Well said, both of you.
Annie, I am so lucky to have commenters like you. I do try to mix the funny with the serious as often as possible. It’s great to know it works for you. Yes, “I’ll take two neurotics and a perfectionist for $1000, Alex” Perhaps there are certain key dysfunctions I mean, “traits” that go along with a writing disposition?
It’s probably best to read Peter’s comments here even before you bother reading my post. 😉 The man is brilliant.
I too have played around with horror stories, although I don’t tend to be conscious that’s what I’m doing until after I re-read them. And I have on several occasions scared the crap out of myself for what I’ve written. Have to sort of unplug my awareness of what I’m doing in order to tolerate it, if that makes any sense.
Thanks so much for stopping by.
You know how you people say they put themselves into the characters? Well, I had kind of the reverse experience from what you’re describing here, and it freaked me the f*ck out. 😉 I wrote this character into a story almost as an afterthought, realized he was more important, revised the whole thing, and kept going with what felt right. I didn’t have to make an effort to get inside his head because it all felt so natural, like I could really understand what he thought/felt/did/etc. And then I had this moment: “Sh*t! He’s me! Crap, he really is! [pause] I hope no one ever figures this out…”
I have a friend whose theory is that every one’s first novel is actually an autobiography, no matter how fictitious the story. I think it’s in our nature to write aspects of ourselves into our stories. Sometimes it’s our best version, sometimes our worst. 🙂
You know, that makes a weird kind of sense. The funny thing is that I was aware of that tendency of new writers to write about themselves, and I had specifically thought about my characters and changed them when they seemed too much like me. But I guess this one snuck up on me because he didn’t start out as a major character, so I wasn’t prepared…I thought I’d accidentally channel my personality/worldview through, ya know, the protagonist.
Well, Ms. Bossypants— if we were in elementary school together, we would have gotten along just fine because I never wanted to play the mother. NOPE. I wanted to be the eighteen year old older sister. She gets to have all the fun and none of the responsibility— telling, isn’t it? And yes, she was always eighteen— my lucky number ever since.
As far as character exploratory, you know I don’t write fiction so I can’t really comment. But it sounds a lot like having a toddler. Do you know she started saying “SHIT” this morning? Yep. And there is not a FUCKING thing I can do about it.
You know this “I don’t write fiction” bullsh*t of yours isn’t going to last much longer, right?
So who do we get to blame for Mazzy’s new vocabulary? I can’t wait to read the post about it.
I guess I am now the “cougar” (dear lord) version of my former self and you, my dear are indeed The Mommy. But the coolest one I know. 🙂
Thanks, this was well worth a second look.
I think for me the most important line is about “If I don’t feel it, the audience won’t either.”
What’s the popular word now? Authenticity, I believe.
Thanks Again for this.
Hmm- Do I dare admit that I, too, am -ahem- in touch with Ms. Bossypants?
Also, I get willful characters! Why are they like that? Don’t they know that there’s a role to play?!
Love the post and am extremely curious about your WIP!
Hi Galit (great name btw). So glad you stopped by for a visit.
If I were going to be terribly psychological about it, I guess I’d say maybe our characters are created inside our id. And of course the id wants chocolate cake for breakfast and a puppy *right now*, and she doesn’t really care what the superego has to say about it. (Insert child stamping her foot and pouting here.)
So there you have it, one reason why our characters are so stubborn. 😉