Thursday, January 31, 2013

Channeling imaginary people

By Gayle Carline

Holy Carp, I've got a blog post to write!

Okay that's what this feels like. I meant to write my post early Wednesday afternoon, then became absorbed in editing the latest manuscript. Amazingly, after having it edited it myself, then paying a professional, then having beta readers, I downloaded it onto my Kindle and guess what? I'm finding more stuff to change. Stuff like, did I really use good twice in the same sentence?

Yeah. Like that.

So later in the evening, I was sitting at the ESPN Zone in Downtown Disney with the hubster, eating a turker burger and watching the Lakers lose, when I said, "Holy carp! I forgot my CFC post!"

Good thing I knew what I was going to write about, especially since I'd already had two glasses of wine. (BTW, how's my spelling look?)

For me, a good story is about its characters. If I can't get into a character, can't live vicariously through them, can't at least step into their shoes for a while, then the plot has to be so incredibly clever or the writing so intensely magnificent, or...

No, forget it. I gotta have real people.

This means I need to know my characters in order to weave my mysteries around them. Michele Scott, author extraordinaire, taught me some tricks to getting acquainted with my real-yet-imaginary people. The big one, for me, has been journaling. By giving each of them a "diary entry" or two, I find out where they were born, how they were raised, and how they've each gotten to this place in their lives. I don't always reveal all this information in the story. But this is how I know each person's boundaries, what they are and are not capable of doing, and why.

I thought I'd share one of my character's journals. My new protagonist, Willie (Wilhemina) Adams is a short, curvaceous brunette in her late 30s. She is a Libra. When I sat down and imagined her, here's what she told me:
I thought I'd have the normal life. Married with children. A job, maybe a career. They say we plan and God laughs.

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. We were very middle class average people. Dad was Irish, Mom was German. I could have been a tall, fetching redhead. Instead I got the wrong side of both tracks. Dad's shortness, mom's curves, dad's freckles, mom's dark hair. We did normal family stuff. Went to church on Sundays after bbq'ing with friends on Saturday nights.
Maybe it started to go awry when I went to college. I was the baby although not by much. I have a sister one year older and a brother 3 years older. We didn't give Mom much time to do anything but raise us.

When I moved into the dorms at U of Illinois and began taking classes for a teaching career, I started to see how my mom sacrificed for us and how I didn't want to spend my life taking care of kids.
I changed my major after a trip to the counseling office, to engineering. Mom thought I was pissing away money on a degree I'd toss once I got married. Dad didn't say anything, but kept paying the tuition. I got my BS in CS and was recruited to work at a big aerospace company on the west coast. I had just moved into my new apartment when Trina, my sis, called.

Dad had a heart attack and died. Trina and my brother Stefan still lived in Chicago, but somehow Mom thought I should be the one to move home with her. I wasn’t married, didn’t have a family, etc. I gave up the new job and apartment and moved back. It’s what dutiful children do, right?
The first year was rough. We were both grieving our loss, and acting out as people do, by being alternately angry and clingy with each other. It slowly started to get better. We each found our own niche in the household and worked together instead of battling over territories. One year after Dad was gone, the light switched back on in Mom’s spirit.

Actually, it was less of a light and more of a disco ball. It seems Mom woke up one morning and realized all she had sacrificed as a wife and mother, and set out to reclaim her freedom. Suddenly she was never home. She found a group of single women her age and they were always out to have as much frivolous fun as possible. There was a lot of shopping, a lot of drinking and dancing, and a lot of money running out of the house.
I had gotten a job at a bookstore back home, the only thing I could find that at least kept my mind active. There were no engineering jobs in the Chicago vicinity for me. But I had money coming in. Dad had left Mom comfortable, had she continued with the lifestyle they once shared. I could see this new way of living was going to drain every bit of money he had left her. She was in her fifties and in fine health. She’d also never worked outside the home.

I tried not to butt in, but finally I had to speak up. I had seen her latest bank statement and it was a train wreck. I sat her down and showed her the statement and pointed out the increase in her expenses. I even extrapolated a few numbers, to show her how soon her money would run out if she kept spending this way. The house was paid for, but she still had taxes and insurance and utilities. She could sell the house and get some money from that, but it would not solve the problem of her out of control spending.
She said the most amazing thing to me: “We’ll pay the household expenses out of your pay. You may have to get another job to support us both.”

I met Trina and Stefan for lunch that day, and explained the entire situation to them. Then I packed my bags and bought a one-way fare to southern California. There was only so much duty a dutiful daughter would perform. Enabling my mom’s second childhood was not on the menu.
Mom stopped speaking to me. I heard via my sibs that she refused to cut back or slow down, despite their protests. Stefan even explored legal action, but when a person is sane there’s not much you can do. You can’t fix stupid.

I quickly found a job at a video game company. It’d be fun to say I write all these great games, but they wanted my services in the administrative end, so I work on their employee database, payroll software, game catalogs, processes, etc.
That’s where I met Tom Adams. He was exactly the kind of guy I was attracted to — not too tall, the kind of strikingly awkward looks that made him adorable, and a sense of humor. We hit it off like peas in a pod. Although we both knew from the start that we were completely compatible, we took our time with courtship. Neither of us was in a hurry to run off and marry. I enjoyed being in the relationship, and so did he. After a year, we moved in together.

Two years later, we married. It wasn’t a huge affair, but my sibs came out to celebrate with us. Mom returned the invitation. “Recipient Unknown.”
Life was so much fun. We went to concerts and plays, saw the latest movies, had friends over for dinner, did the big fat social scene. Tom wanted kids, and so did I, but we weren’t in a hurry. We had plenty of time.

Then one day Tom woke with a stomach pain that kept hurting the next day and the next. After a week, he went to the doctor. There were tests and tests and more tests, and painkillers because the pain was increasing. I drove him everywhere. He used up a lot of his sick days. It took two weeks to diagnose him. Pancreatic cancer.
Two months later he was dead.

Trina and Stefan were out in sunny SoCal again, except it wasn’t so sunny anymore. They helped me with everything, along with my friends. Quite frankly, it was all a blur. I thought I knew what grief felt like, after Dad died. I had no idea what it was like to lose someone who was beyond family, more than close, intimate in ways that you don’t discuss in polite society. When my eyes weren’t weeping, my soul was.
Mom was still a no-show, which was doubly painful. I thought that, being a sudden widow herself, she might have reached out to me. Stefan reported that she had finally opened her bank statement one day and realized she had a thousand dollars left. Dad had left her $250,000 and she had one thousand left. She called my brother in a panic. Taxes were due, what was she to do?

He got out the newspaper and turned to the Help Wanted section. Then he got out his checkbook. “This is the only money I’m going to give you. Your children tried to warn you and you wouldn’t listen. We are not going to pay for your mistakes. You will have to get a job now and re-learn how to live on a budget.”
She’s not speaking to him now, either. Oh, she cashed the check, but she’s not speaking.

Eventually, he and Trina had to go back to Chicago, and I had to re-learn how to live as a single gal. My friends helped me a little, for awhile. I tried not to burden them with my recovery, and they tried to include me in everything they were doing. The problem was that they were couples and I was not. After a few months, I started to feel the awkwardness instead of the comfort. It was not their fault. They were always inviting, warm, friendly. Maybe they just made me miss Tom too much.
I took the advice of every columnist on the planet. I got a dog for company, a schnauzer I named Hansel. He kept me from spending my days in bed. I signed up for classes, did volunteer work, tried new things to keep busy. Most of it didn’t fit, until I tried horse riding lessons.

I had wanted to ride as a child, but Mom always said no.“Too expensive. We can’t afford things like that.” Maybe that was in the back of my mind when I called the local stables looking for lessons. Ha ha, Mom.
I’ve tried skiing, scuba diving, and all kinds of sports. None of them seemed a good fit for me. Being short and curvy does not translate to athletic grace. But from the first time I gave the lesson horse a deep massage with the curry and saw him stretch his neck out in pleasure, to the satisfaction of controlling his movements through my own riding, I knew this was it. There was no other activity I had experienced where I loved the prep work as much as the action.

Soon I was riding my trainer’s horse and competing in horse shows in the area. It’s becoming a consuming passion with me. Now I’m looking to buy a horse. It’s been two years since Tom’s death, and I finally feel like the fog is lifting.

As a writer, I sit back at these words and wonder where this came from.

Writers, how many times does this happen to you - that you realize you've created a character that almost seems more real than you are? And readers, how deep, how fleshed out, how three-dimensional do you need your characters to be?


  1. Love this, Gayle, and how you blend humor with sadness in such a subtle way it makes the reader want to laugh and cry at the same time. It's one of the reason I enjoy your books so much.

    I write bios for my characters. Each one I write starts off with main facts (age, health, physical attributes, job, family etc) and develops as I get further into the story. I always end up with a complex main character who seemed so uncomplicated at the beginning.

  2. Wow. I do character bios but I've never done the diary exercise. I think I'll try it. But of course, it's fiction, so things can change as you write the story.

  3. Like I said, I may not reveal this info in the story. But now I know Willie's personality and how she approaches problems. This info will come in handy when she's deciding whether to stick her nose into a murder investigation, and how far she'll go.

  4. I do a stream of consciousness first-person thing, much like this one but not as tidy. Characters are as important (or more) than plot to me. If I don't connect with a character (writing or reading) nothing is likely to hang together.

    Gotta say, I like Willie!

  5. Wow! Color me impressed, Gayle! I love your journaling idea and have suggested that in my "advice columns," too.

    Ditto what Peg said: "Characters are as important (or more) than plot to me. If I don't connect with a character (writing or reading) nothing is likely to hang together." If the protagonist doesn't grab me by page 10 or so, I'm likely to put down the book and never pick it up again.

    Your character diary is beautifully written, fascinating, and absorbing. Thanks for a great read - I gotta get your books!

  6. Thanks for this example of your character development technic. Based on this post, I've ordered Freezer Burn and expect a late night, can't-stop-reading experience.

    I like Willie's spunk and good judgement – looking forward to meeting her when you publish.

  7. I read about a movie director that had his actors do journals for their characters and I thought it was brilliant. I think this is brilliant, too!

  8. Thanks, Julie! I hope you're not disappointed!

  9. I enjoyed Willie's diary, Gayle. (A good thing I read through to the end before starting comments, or there would have been a lot of wordplay on the introduction. (Like the typo in the third sentence.:) Very realistic and three-dimensional.

    I just don't (can't?) write that way. I've tried the character bios, filling out the sheets. I've tried the backstory narratives - though I must say having the characters write a diary or journal is inspired. Doesn't work. My characters constantly tell me, "I'll tell you what you need to know when you need to know it. I'm prying into your mind and life, not the other way around." I guess they want to surprise me. I'm like all, really? And they're like, yeah, deal with it. Work that into your plot, bigshot.

    Thanks, Gayle!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.