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Friday, July 16, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-minded #21: My imaginary friends

People...okay, women...ask me all the time whether Joe Wolf Mantooth is based on a real man.  I don't like to dash their hopes, but the truth is that he is a total figment of my imagination.  Otherwise, I would not, at this point in time, be a single woman.  ;-)

And I'm not Faye, either, though people seem to confuse us at times.

I know writers who take a personality trait from one person and the facial features of another and the profession of a third, and they put them into some kind of mental blender.  Out pops a fictional character, ready for adventure.  It works for them, but if I tried it, I think I'd get something like the mythological sphinx--the head of a woman, the body of a lioness, the wings of an eagle, and a serpent headed tail--and I think that sphinx-y character would stick out of the narrative like a sore thumb.

My characters grow out of the setting or out of their situation.  As always when developing a story, I ask myself questions.  Who would live in this ramshackle old plantation house?  What would her problem be?  If she had a male best friend, where would he come from?  What are his passions?  Why aren't they lovers?  Or, if I'm developing a murderer, I might imagine someone who, in this particular place and this particular time, would kill out of a sense of shame.

I once had an interesting encounter while waiting to do a television interview.  It was one of those shows where the other guests are usually about as famous as me--Little League coaches, Humane Society volunteers, and the like.  We were all sitting in the green room watching the show, and the host said, "And today, we have Corbin Bernson of LA Law fame here with us."  I turned around and there he was, dressed in a rumpled white linen suit and politely begging his handlers to take him to his hotel after the interview so he could get a shower.

When the Humane Society lady and her two dogs got up out of the chair next to me, he dropped into it, looking exhausted, and asked me about my book.  There followed a brief but entertaining conversation where I learned who he likes to read:  Michael Connelly, among others.  Just as he was being called back for his interview (and before I got a chance to tell him there was a helluva part for him in Artifacts), the conversation had turned to our respective arts.  I was telling him that there is an bit of acting in what I do.  I have to know who my character is and where he/she has been before I can know how he/she will react in a given situation.

There is an element of empathy in what writers and actors do.  I'm sure Corbin Bernsen has never been a cocky, hotshot lawyer, but he had to imagine he'd lived that life in order to play Arnold Becker.  I was never a woman of color growing up in the South in the 1970s, but I was there and I can imagine what it was like for Faye.  The big difference is that Corbin had somebody to write Becker's dialogue for him, and I have to put words in Faye's mouth.

I have been writing Faye since 2001.  Her stories total more than a half-million words, and I hope I get to write a half-million more.  Or maybe a million.  She's a deep, rich character, and I'm lucky to have her in my life.  My life is so full these days that I can't see next week, but I wouldn't mind if I were still writing Faye when I'm 70 and she's 61.  She can be my multiracial American non-virginal Miss Marple.

I'll write other stuff.  I already do.  I  have a short story coming out next month in Florida Heat Wave, I'm writing that math literacy book I keep telling y'all about, and I've got a couple of stand-alones in my head that will erupt sooner or later.  But I love looking at American culture through the eyes of somebody who'll always be one step outside it.  (And I love Joe, but you knew that.)

When I start a new book and I spend that period of weeks or months doing research and brooding over the plot, I know that it's time to start when I hear Joe and Faye talking to each other.  (And yes, I do know that they're not real.  I'm not schizophrenic.  I'm a novelist, although I guess that may not speak too loudly of my stability.)

When you write your own characters, do whatever it takes to get to know them beneath the surface, or they will never be more than a laundry list of character traits.  And if you know Corbin Bernsen, would you please let him know that I've got a helluva part for him?


  1. I attended an FWA evening lecture last year in St. Pete, and the speaker was a novelist. He said that he wrote at least 10,000 words of back story and a detailed character sketch on each character BEFORE he began the actual construction of the novel. He had a novelist friend in the audience who was shaking his head emphatically over the gasps of the audience, indicating that he was in total agreement. This was his practice too. I think it's good to know your people before you put them to work, don't you? Guess it gets a LOT easier when you've been writing them for a long time!

  2. At the request of my agent, I wrote character sketches before I began writing ARTIFACTS, then I tightened them up after I wrote the book, so that they could be used as part of a proposal package for any publisher that might want such a thing. They weren't anywhere close to 10,000 words, though. My personal book-preparation neurosis went into full gear when I wrote the outline for ARTIFACTS...which was 125 pages long. You could call an outline of that level of detail a really ugly first draft, actually. My later outlines were shorter, settling out at about 25 pages, but I won't begin a book without one. I tried, with FLOODGATES, then stopped after 75 pages and wrote the outline, because I saw that I really needed it.

  3. I have always wondered if you began with an outline and a tight plan. My fantasy had been that you might just start writing and see what happened, but that never made sense to me. Kind of like allowing the inmates to run the asylum. SOMEBODY's gotta be in charge of all those characters.

    You take my breath away, girl. You really do. Can't wait for your next book.

  4. Some people insinuate that *I* should be the inmate...

  5. I had always heard writers say "My characters talk to me," but had never experienced it until I had a need in my novel for someone to help the protagonist figure something out. One character kept raising her hand and asking, "Can I try?" She was based on someone in real life whom I wasn't crazy about, so I ignored her for a while. But then, desperate, I said, "Okay, give it a shot," and I wrote the scene her way. During that magical hour, I fell in love with her (the fictional character, not the real person) and gave her permission to blossom. Now I want to play her if they ever make the movie!

  6. I guess it would be too much to hope that you would fall in love with the actual (obnoxious) person. :-D

    Great story!