A few days ago my car broke down. It was outside a Starbucks near Brown University. I waited for a tow for an hour and a half. Between calls to the dealership, the tow guy, and the vet (Dog Number 3 had her lady parts removed), there was a lot of good old fashioned people watching.
Does anyone out there do this anymore? I think 95% of the folks who passed by were looking at or talking on their phones. Including the adorable young man wearing faded blue overall shorts, his legs sprouting sun-bleached poodle curls, his hair a white David Bowie cut. Same with the portly Lucius Malfoy look-alike in his black pants/shirt/suit jacket. And the minions of pony-tailed students wearing jogging bras and athletic shorts.
Then there was a woman, probably in her late forties or early fifties, dressed to go out for the evening, little black dress, high heels, thick shoulder length tree-bark colored hair. She was pacing back and forth in front of Starbucks, maybe waiting for a Match.com date, a limo, Lucius Malfoy? And under her arm, where I thought she would be holding a stylish clutch, was a package of Oreo cookies.
The next day I was telling my 15-year-old daughter about this woman and she said, “That’s amazing. I want to be her when I grow up.”
And there it was. With that brief description a full-blown character had leapt forth, real enough to be my daughter’s hero.
Right now the writing is killing me. It’s partly because I have to make stuff happen, like, uh, plot. But more than that, I think it is because my main character is boring the crap out of me. And that’s because I don’t know her well enough. So the other day I started one of those exercise things everyone always says will help but I hate them because I think I should already know this stuff (which I don’t) and it makes me feel like I’m wasting time when I should be writing the actual novel (which I’m not). But I was desperate and so I started a list of things about this character:
X is someone who:
Uses humor to deal with complex feelings
Is a little beaten down by the way she thought life would be vs the way life really is
Too vague, I thought. So this:
X tried a lot of outdoor activities because she wants to be an outdoorsy person – loves to go into REI and look at all the cool clothes, gadgets, tents and hiking boots. But nothing sustains her interest long enough to get good at it and in truth she would rather stay at a nice hotel and take a bath
And then, of course, I realized why this character bores the crap out of me. She IS me.
When you are writing a novel (and it truly is a novel – there is a ghost in it for Pete’s sake and a lot of stuff that never happened to me and people who are completely fictional), but you base a character on a lot of what has happened to you, it is hard to make this person his/her own true self.
How do you get this person to break out of your shell?
Maybe more of these exercises? Maybe you get her to do things you would never do and see what happens? Maybe you make an on-line profile and see who she attracts? Maybe you put a package of Oreos under her arm?
This is really stalling out my writing. I probably need to do more people watching – hang out at Starbucks or Roller Derby or go to a lot of yard sales or interview people who think they are vampires. Any of that, of course, would be better than writing.
Character. I love it. I hate it. Time to get some.