Getting to Know You: Character Sketches

Having started sometime in October, by some other time in December I was twenty thousand words into the first draft of my novel-to-be, Thin Spots (coming eventually to an e-bookstore near you). Pleased as I was about the word count, a couple of things started to bug me. One was a flaw in the plot structure, which maybe I’ll talk about another time.

The other bugging item, which I’ll talk about now, was the characters.

The story’s got characters, all right—good guy, bad guy, love interest, the works—all moving around, doing stuff. Great, right? Except they felt flat, like cardboard cutouts moving around against a watercolor backdrop. Not really knowing what to do, I just kept moving them around, having faith that an answer would bubble up from the kettle of creative process in due time.

Sure enough, due time came around and I realized the problem, or at least part of it, was that I didn’t know the characters. Oh, I knew their names, physical characteristics, motivations and that sort of thing, but I hadn’t sat down with each one of them and let them speak or act as they wanted to. Another way of putting this might be that I hadn’t let their true natures rise out of my unconscious into the daylight.

I started this project with a novel-writing cookbook that advised me to define characters by filling out a list of specifics for each one. Here’s a partial example, for the lead character:

  • Character Type: Lead. Name: Colin Davis. Colin is a short form of “Nicholas” means “victory of the people”…
  • Connection to Lead: Is
  • Story Goal: He wants to get back to his body so he can stay alive, end his torment…
  • Gender: Male
  • Age: 30
  • Appearance: Blonde. Late 20s-early 30s. Average height & build…
  • Height & Body Type: Average American; 5′ 10″. Body type: Just a shade on the stocky side…
  • Hair color: Blonde
  • Eye color: Dark blue, unusually so.
  • Mannerisms: Combs his fingers backwards through his hair when thinking…

You get the idea. It’s all well and good, and it probably helped me start thinking, but not a bit of it gave me a gut feel for what this guy is like. These items are details for building an automaton, not for bringing a character to life.

What to do? I cast my mind back—way back—to a wonderful high-school English teacher who had the class write character sketches, which were just a page or two putting a character in an everyday situation and letting him or her move through it. I’ve been doing that over the past few days and I like what’s happening. The sketches don’t give me all the details of the character’s high school romances, dental work, etc., but they do make me feel as though I’m getting to know them well enough to work with them in a story.

I’ll be sharing these sketches in the next several posts. Here’s the first one. It’s for Doc Lutz, a character I didn’t even know I had until I started working out the plotting problem I mentioned earlier.

Doc Lutz was running late, which wasn’t good, because he was the only one with a key to Pizza Haven. That was only good sense—he was the owner, after all—but it meant the help would be piling up around the back door, bitching, building up a bad attitude that would last all the way until quitting time. Their attitudes were bad enough—he didn’t need to give them any help. He put the pedal to the metal, blasted through the last red light between him and the Magnolia Walk strip mall and arrived in a handy handicapped-only spot with a squeal of brakes.

They were there, all right. Manny, his lead cook, leaning against the graffiti-spattered brick wall with a cigarette dangling from his perpetual frown; Tanya the waitress in her usual form-fitting mini-skirt, hugging a black leather jacket around her against the cold and Colin, the delivery guy, utility player and general waste of space, sitting cross-legged on the ground, scribbling in a notebook as usual.

“Okay, people, spread out, Daddy’s here.”

Tanya spit her gum into an open trash bin. “If you were my daddy, I’d have grown up in foster care.”

“Nice. Merry goddamn Christmas to you, too. Manny, stomp out that butt before you come inside. And wash your hands before you start in the kitchen. How many times I gotta tell you?”

“Hell. I just lit up, Doc. These things are expensive.”

“So, quit. Hey, Shakespeare, you going to finish your masterpiece there and grace us with your presence?”

Colin stayed where he was and chewed his pencil. “Any of you guys know a good word for ‘sticky’?”

“How about ‘fired’? Do anything for you?”

“All right, all right.” Colin slapped his notebook shut and stuffed it into his backpack. “Ready to ride at your command, my captain.”

After he had made sure that Manny’s hands were washed and Tanya knew the specials, Doc went to do the liquor count. Colin Davis, he knew, would take care of himself, scribbling, until there was something he was needed for.

He grunted as he squatted to peer into the liquor cabinets beneath the bar. His weight wasn’t going anywhere but up—an occupational hazard—and his knees weren’t what they used to be. Heedless of the discomfort, he painstakingly counted each bottle, reaching to the back to be sure nobody had hidden a partial there, hoping he’d get lazy and count it as a full bottle. He also spot-checked a few bottles by upending them and watching the liquor cling to the glass or, if they were already open, removing the tops and sniffing the contents, to be sure they hadn’t been watered down. After recording the results of the count on a tally sheet, he went to his office to check the results against the previous day’s sales.

The office was a Spartan affair, consisting of a metal desk, a battered swivel chair—both bought used—and a safe set into the concrete floor. There were filing cabinets, a time clock and a bulletin board. The board contained the only personal items in the space: the first dollar Doc had made at Pizza Haven, sealed in a baggie, and a picture of his daughter, Rosalie, the one good thing to come from a marriage that had broken up many years before.

The liquor count and the sales sheet didn’t match up; the sales figures accounted for less liquor used than did the count, even with a give-or-take of five percent to account for the general inexactitude of the process. This was the third night in a month it had happened. Doc pulled a file and checked the staffing logs for those nights. There were only two employees common to all three nights: Lequoin, a kid he’d hired to bar-back about six weeks back, and Colin Davis, a.k.a. Shakespeare.

Doc scratched his belly and mulled over the matter. It was unlikely Colin was the culprit. He was too young to drink and, anyway, his job was driving, and on a motorcycle at that—not something that lent itself well to sneaking booze. Lequoin, on the other hand, was around the bar a lot, and he was so taciturn and slow-moving anyway that it would be hard to tell if he’d had a couple, unless you got right up in his face and smelled his breath.

“You’re my guy, coonass,” Doc muttered. He pulled up a number on his cell phone and hit dial. In a moment, he heard “Yo, this is Bobby Lequoin. Hit me up at the beep.”

The phone beeped. “Hey, Lequoin, this is Doc over at Pizza Haven. You’re fired. Come get your last check anytime we’re open. Merry goddamn Christmas.”

That’s a helluva cold message if it ain’t him, Doc thought, but he didn’t have any serious doubts. He trusted his instincts in these matters and was seldom wrong. And if he was by some outrageous chance wrong, he knew better than to ever admit it. He pulled an apron from a hook and headed out for the floor, pausing just long enough to look at his daughter’s picture and say a quick prayer for her. It was Christmas, so he was running with a skeleton crew and would have to do some of the heavy lifting himself.

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No Time to Waste! Writing for Its Own Sake

The following quote appears on author Tom Vowler’s blog, How to Write a Novel, as something to ponder:

“Write a bad short story and you’ve wasted two weeks; write a bad novel, you’ve wasted two years.”

Tom’s a published novelist, and I’m trying to learn, so I pondered. After I’d pondered a while, I decided that, while this blog is full of useful insights, pithily posed, I disagreed with this particular tidbit.

Specifically, I don’t believe any time spent writing is a waste, if you’re writing for the right reasons, which I am, of course, perfectly qualified to define (pause for snickers from the readership).

If you’re writing primarily to please anyone else, then time spent on unsuccessful–that is, unread–pieces will indeed be wasted. Write for money, write for fame, write so your mom will be proud, write to see your name someplace besides on your checks and you’re dependent on the approval of others to get pleasure out of your writing.

Because you can’t get the approval of others until your writing’s done, all the research, planning and wordsmithing are not done for their own sake, they’re done with the hope of a reward later on. And if you’re chasing a reward from other people, you’re in grave danger of trying to conform to their preferences instead of to your own artistic vision.

If you’re writing for yourself, enjoying the process for its own sake, you’ll never waste your time. I’m working on my first novel and here’s what I’ve found so far:

> Research is fun if you stay open and curious. I read come of the Aeneid, which I’d never bothered with before, as part of my prep for this project and it was great stuff. I renewed my acquaintance with Dante’s Inferno.

> Plotting is just a big game where you take pieces and try to fit them together.  It’s also full of surprises as the story takes shape and you figure out that B has to happen for A, which you thought of before, to make sense.

> Writing is the process of telling yourself a story for your own amusement and personal growth. In Stephen King’s novel, Misery, the hero, who’s a writer, gets through the ordeal by writing his novel to see what happens next. Even if you’ve outlined your novel from stem to stern, it’s going to develop organically and take unexpected twists, and it’s great fun figuring out the adjustments you have to make.

Am I a twisted masochist? Maybe so, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it. Sure, I want my novel to be clever and beautiful, and sure I want it to bring pleasure to untold thousands of readers, but if I focus on those things I’ll squash the pleasure of what I am doing right now.

What I am doing now is crafting the first draft of a novel called Thin Spots (for now), about a guy whose soul ends up in Hell by mistake while he’s in a coma. The whole process, even when it’s hard, is a joy; not a moment have I wasted.

(For Technorati: K3WK6GYZ7REH)

The Fictive Dream versus The Leaf Blower

Today, I’m going to swipe an idea of the late John Gardner’s. I had the pleasure of meeting him once when I was but a callow college lad. He was a fine writing teacher and I’m proud to spread his wisdom in this space.

Mr. Gardner had a notion he call “the fictive dream.” In The Art of Fiction, he writes, “In the writing state—the state of inspiration–the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols.”

If the writer is true to his dream, his words will provide his readers the same experience. They will fall into a sort of dream state in which they are living the story along with the characters. If you’ve ever been engrossed in a work of fiction, you know what I mean.

Now, what if you’re asleep, and you’re having a great dream, and your neighbor starts his freakin’ leaf blower about two feet from your window? You’re jolted out of it, right? The experience is ruined.

Something similar happens when a writer screws up grammar, at least if the reader is aware of the problem, which isn’t always the case, I realize.

I’ve been reading a couple of very talented self-published Kindle authors lately, with genuine enjoyment, but they keep shocking me out of the dream state with their inability to use the verb “lie,” as in “lie down,” correctly.

I’m dreaming along and I run into something like, “He was exhausted after the chase and decided to lay down.”

Aiiee! Leaf blower! It should be “decided to lie down.” A person does not lay down. My dream is interrupted by the error. I’m jolted awake and forced to acknowledge I’m just reading a story. The sense of reality is gone. The writer has defeated his or her purpose. (For the complete poop on this verb, just go to dictionary.com or someplace similar.)

Perfect grammar isn’t always desirable for a writer. In fact, bending or outright breaking the rules can be a great way to achieve effects.

The problem comes about when a writer makes an unintended error out of carelessness or ignorance and it’s egregious enough for the reader to notice.

“To lie” might not really be a problem for much longer. It’s getting increasingly common to mix it up with “to lay.” Many people don’t even notice the error, I’m sure. After a while, we might see a change in usage that makes “I’m going to lay down” perfectly acceptable outside southern Mississippi.

Until then, I hope writers everywhere, especially the self-published ones who rely on their own resources, will proofread carefully and continually upgrade their vocabularies. Keep those readers dreaming, folks–please.

That’s all. I have done lied down the law.

Oh, and let me lay this smackerel of Thin Spots (totally unedited rough draft) on you: smackerel 12-14-11

The Dreaded Block Monster

Well, it finally happened. Writer’s block. Oh, the angst of it all.

The old first draft is starting to take a turn or two on its own and, to tell the truth, it kind of freaked me out. I didn’t know what was going to happen next and the first draft wasn’t talking.

The result? I couldn’t get my writing started. Okay, that’s not quite true. I did write a paragraph. Then I deleted it. Then I went through the sequence again. And again. And blabbity blah. Not squat did I get written in my allotted hour today.

A complete disaster, you say? That’s not the case, I’m pleased to say. I actually learned some things that—lucky you!—I will now share:

  •  It’s not the end of the world if nothing gets written on a given day. Empires won’t rise or fall. Nor municipalities, even.
  • It’s probably a good idea for me to lubricate my brain cells with a stream-o’-consciousness free write before I start hammering the brass tacks.
  • It’s wise for me to avoid writing attempts in bustling places like the coffee shop I spent my hour in today. (It’s a wonderful hangout under most other circumstances.)
  • Maybe most important, “block” is a misnomer. It’s more of a space, an empty field where ideas can grow.

The best part is, after all this spacing and learning and whatnot, I now know where the next scene is going.

So, um, yippee!

Lame ending? Well, I told you I was blocked.

By the way, here’s your reward (or punishment) for reading this post: today’s small smackerel, from the wholly unwashed first draft. smackerel 12-07-11