Adventures in Character Development

I don’t fish.  When I say that, I mean I don’t commercially fish.  I used to dive, but that was with a bunch of mercenary treasure hunters off the coast of Cape Cod in the 1980s.  I used to work with predominantly male archaeological crews in the field, and that was in the 90s.  I’ve work with construction crews, with restoration crews….  Let’s just say that I’ve been around a lot of guys.  I watch them.  I listen to them.  Sometimes, it’s like they’re a completely different species; not that I’m about to go all Jane Goodall on you, but I’m so not a guy that it behooved me to learn how to think like a guy if I wanted my characters to be even slightly believable.  So, I’ve worked on it.  Man … do you guys ever NOT think about sex?  Anyway….

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about characters, it’s this: don’t create them in a vacuum.  They’ll suck.  If you can find two or three other writers to feed you and your characters whom you, in turn, feed, the process can be amazing.  When I clawed my way through my first NaNoWriMo, I lived in a vacuum.  Now, in November 2009, I loved my characters, I thought they were great, and I really enjoyed the story they told.  But, in December 2009, we moved to the ROCK that is Prince of Wales Island and I didn’t know anybody here, so I retreated into the story and the characters.

I ventured, albeit tentatively, onto the Forums on the NaNoWriMo website.  In the Horror/Supernatural Forum, there was a game.  It was called “3 Questions For Your Character.”  When it started, it was people asking three questions of your main character–sometimes questions as simple as “favorite color” or “favorite movie”– and people would just answer the questions.  What it evolved into was nothing short of amazing.  When you play something like this with two or three characters, you can get whole conversations going.  When your characters interact with characters in other novels and WIPs, it can be astounding.  You’ll find out things you never knew about them and you’ll find they become more and more real the more you talk and interact with them.  Think of it like a script.  They’re the actors in your head, and you know they have distinct personalities.  You just need to capture that in their dialogue and mannerisms over and over until it translates into characters that “pop” from the page.  It’s also an exercise that takes your characters out of their story and places them in the real world with you.  Sound psychotic?  Probably, but there’s no denying the results.  The characters are no longer restricted to the pages of their book — they walk and breathe and have opinions … sometimes way too many opinions … about things outside their world.  Two months after I began playing the game with my NaNo ’09 characters, I knew I was on to something….

I pulled my three main characters from Cut Time to play in the game: Wisteria, a 30-something underemployed non-Alaskan living in a dry cabin just outside Fairbanks, Alaska; Raf, her 20-something weirder than weird raised-in-the-bush neighbor; and James, a physics professor from the local university who takes a shine to Wiz and he’s not exactly human… I mean, I knew he wasn’t human, I knew he was some kind of demon, I just didn’t know he was, well … this guy…(which came out in the game–and Wally is the character from Split who posed the question):

1. One thing…. (the question: name one thing the other characters in your story don’t really know about you)

James: Adam was my father.

Wiz: Your dad’s name was Adam?

Raf: No, Wiz, he means ADAM was his father.

Wiz (blinks): Adam…. Just how old ARE you, James? Does that mean Eve was your
mom? I don’t remember hearing about YOU in Sunday School….

James: No, Eve was dead by that point. Adam had…moved on…

Raf: Adam was married to Lilith….(grins) But that’s not mom, either…is it,
James….

Wiz: Then who was your mom?

James (glaring at Raf): Her name was Naamah….wonderful woman–

Raf: Angel of Prostitution.

Wiz (BLINKS): Pardon….?

Raf (grins): Love this question, Wally.

Wiz: Raf–you’re KIDDING, right?

James: No, I’m afraid he’s not. Remember, you don’t really CHOOSE your
family…

Raf (STILL GRINNING): But YOU did. Keep going, James…tell her the rest….

Wiz: UNHOLY HELL, there’s MORE?

James: One thing…Wally said one thing….

Raf (laughs): He married Lilith.

James (protesting): In Hell…

Wiz (BLINKS): Hang on….YOU’RE MARRIED??? YOU MARRIED YOUR FATHER’S WIFE?

James (protesting) EX-wife–

Raf(grinning): Know that old expression about “Hell hath no fury like a
woman scorned?”

Wiz (weakly): Yeah….

James (rolling his eyes): That’s my wife.

Wiz: Your wife….

James: IN HELL. Besides, it’s not like we’re that….married anymore. She
pretty much does her own thing and I do mine….

Wiz (walking toward the door): I need time to think about this….

James: Wiz! Come back!

Raf: Geez, Wally, if you ever get to Alaska, I’ll buy you a beer. That was flat
AWESOME.

Ringing silence.

Raf (quietly): Now she’s gone, I’ll tell you. I’M not who she thinks I am,
either. It’s been absolute HELL for me not being able to tell her, but I don’t
want to put her in any more danger than she’s already in. That’s the problem
with all this stuff we do…the memories get all screwed up. (sighs) I’m always
me. I wish she’d realize that…..

Sometimes, the questions are in a less serious vein.  One of my favorites was: What’s on the bottom of your shoe right now?

1. Bottom of my shoe….

James (stepping forward with a smile)

Raf: Ow! Damn it, James, get off!

James (grinning): Raf.

Raf: Jerk. Very funny.

Wiz (laughing): You have to admit, that WAS pretty funny.

Raf (moodily): I don’t have to admit anything, Wiz.

Wiz (lifting her foot): Snow on the bottom of my bunny boots at the moment.

Raf (lifting his foot): Bits of spruce bark. (grins) Out splitting wood again.
Geez, I’ll be glad when winter’s over.

I wondered if this was what Robert E. Howard meant when he described his writing process with all the Conan stories and his later fiction–how he would sit down with his characters, look across at them, and say, “Tell me a story.” … and it worked.

That said, though, it’s not like I don’t do any research.  As a matter of fact, I was amazed when I pulled out my research notebooks and went through them not long ago.  For The Fishing Widow, the research focused on vessels, conditions, fishing techniques, weather, equipment, language (Tlingit), and then pages and pages of what constituted “interviews” with my characters.  “Interview” might be the wrong word… what’s the word…?  Rant.  That might be a better word.  Whole conversations that will never make it into print are in that book.  Ethan’s grandmother’s Blåbärspalt recipe (blueberry dumplings) is in there, Colin’s boyhood trips to Chitina are in there, and the time Mike and his brother got charged by a bear when they were kids is in there.  You won’t find that backstory in The Fishing Widow, but for the author to know it is to allow the author to better know the characters.  Our arguments are in there, too.  Only another writer will understand that last sentence, or won’t raise an eyebrow at it, but yes.  Our arguments are in there, too–every sarcastic comment, every dope-slap…. every apology … every frustration … every lie ….

The Fishing Widow had no outline.  The process was, basically, sitting down with these guys and asking them to tell the story.  All I did was write down what they said.   It was an exercise in stream of consciousness writing that surprised me and just about everyone who’s read it.  There was no plan.  Yes, there were plot twists that even I didn’t see coming.  That’s what made it such a joy to write.

And, just for fun, I’ll leave the conversation the boys and I had when we all sat down to go over 1835 and the situation aboard The Covenant, the Nantucket whaler that figures heavily into the story.  I don’t like Captain Priam Hartt.  I seriously don’t like Captain Priam Hartt.  He makes Wolf Larsen look like a guy you’d want dating your daughter by comparison….mostly because I started with The Sea Wolf‘s captain and went for ten shades more evil… But, I gave Hartt his voice (and the writing is different for 1835 than it is for 2010), and my favorite was when Hartt was pacing the deck aft of the helm and growls at Nathaniel Rawson, the Time-Keeper:

“What is the time?” Hartt demanded.

Rawson hesitated before he stepped out of the shadows. “It’s late, sir,” he whispered, his dark eyes shining.

Hartt turned toward him. At the wheel, Boyden fought the urge to turn as well. He inclined his head, listening.

Hartt bristled. “I asked you a question, Mr. Rawson!” he barked.

Rawson laughed quietly. “Aye, sir,” he continued darkly. “Being alone or being together… It’s late.”

“Contumacious mooncalf!” Hartt snarled suddenly. “Remove yourself from my deck!”

Ethan: A…what?

Colin: I’ve never heard of that —

Me: Me, neither –.

Ethan(quietly): Con.. conti… contimim… contimitious —

Colin: Stop it, Ethan, you’ll hurt yourself.

Ethan: Shut it, Col.  What the hell does that mean, JM?

Me(muttering): I don’t have a clue… let me look it up..