Thursday, September 20, 2007

Part Three- Finding Your Characters

All writers work differently, and there's no right way or wrong way to create and tell a story. Many writers (or so I've heard) start with a character and then build the story around that.

I start with a situation and people it with the characters I'll need to tell that story. Since that's the system that works best for me, that's the one I'll go into in potentially tedious fashion.

I'll start with Life As We Knew It to appease the Google Alert folk. I knew the story was going to be about a teenager who lives through a worldwide disaster. I picked sixteen year old girl because sixteen year old girl is my default option. I didn't have to worry about making her sympathetic from page one, since enough bad things were going to happen to her that as long as she behaved decently, readers would care about her.

Since I was concentrating on family, the family characters came next. I wanted (this was very important to me) a mother who was a character on her own, not just the heroine's mom, so I gave her strong political views and a sharp tongue. I didn't want my heroine to be the oldest (too much responsibility for her), and it's a completely different book if she has an older sister. Besides, I like older brothers, having one myself. If my heroine wasn't going to have all that responsibility, her older brother had to be strong and willing to take it on. But I didn't want my heroine to be the baby of the family. Again, if she has a younger sister, the conflicts are different, so I gave her a younger brother. Dad was best left out of the story, but I didn't want him to have no connection with the family, so I saddled him with a different set of responsibilities, a young pregnant wife. Poof- there's the primary cast of LAWKI.

It's easy enough to explain what I did, but I figured I owed it to all of us to go through the same process with a brand new story. I went back to the endless list of Team stories, and because 4 is my favorite number, decided to select the fourth one as the situation to create characters to go with.

I tell you, it's hard being honest. Number 4 was: What if you love the sport but you're part of a gang and the cops haul you in for questioning the day of the big game?

That's definitely not a story I use over and over again.

But all right, here goes (and I've given this about 1 minute's worth of thought; this is a surprise quiz for me too):

A boy, maybe 15, so he's at an age where he could go bad. He loves a sport,doesn't have to be baseball, doesn't even have to be a team sport, maybe chess. But if it's chess, his loyalty will be to the game and the coach, not the team. For the time being, I'll stick with baseball, since that's the sport I know the best.

Okay, 15 year old boy, loves baseball. Is he good at it? I don't think that matters right now, just that he loves the game. Maybe he's an immigrant and he comes from a Central American country where everyone plays baseball. Maybe he's an illegal alien, just to annoy Lou Dobbs. Anyway, he loves baseball. Family? I don't need them yet, this is a Team book.

He has a cousin who's in a gang and is recruiting him (my hero needs a name; I'll call him M for Mariano Rivera, at least for the time being). Okay, M has a cousin who's recruiting him for his gang. Is cousin bad? Maybe not bad bad, but certainly the gang breaks the law. Drugs. But the gang also provides group support. Maybe M is living with his cousin's family. That could make for some neat conflicts, and make M more vulnerable.

Baseball could represent M's home, the gang his new home. I like that; it's kind of a wicked twist on assimilation. Okay, the gang is what his cousin knows, baseball is what M knows. M moves in with cousin's family (an aunt, an uncle, boy cousin a couple of years older than M, maybe a girl cousin M's age who's opposed to gangs, not a girlfriend option, being cousins and all, but a friend and a girl that girl readers could identify with). M finds a ball club almost immediately. Or maybe he gets recruited for that as well by a boy that could become M's friend, his gang alternative.

Maybe cousin is under pressure to bring in new recruits. Maybe he tells M it's just for a meeting (do gangs have meetings? Do they use Robert's Rules?). Anyway, it's not a lifetime commitment, so M goes along. But M has to do it voluntarily and with full knowledge. Otherwise he's just a poor innocent victim and I don't like that. He knows the score, but he figures it's just a one shot deal.

Does M commit a crime? I'd prefer not, although he's in a position where he could. Maybe cousin commits the crime, and M's conflict is whether he clears his own name by turning in his cousin. Or if that's too tough, maybe the conflict is whether to turn in the leader of the gang, which will clear both M and his cousin, but his cousin is opposed to doing that- lack of loyalty to the gang.

So M's loyalty conflict is between his cousin and his ball club. Is there an adult M can confide in? I think I'd prefer not, in which case he can't be that close to the team's manager. M's girl cousin would have no doubts about what to do, but maybe if M turns the gang leader in, girl cousin will be in serious jeopardy.

Poor M! Poor me! Already I can see M, a decent kid who's been brought up to love family and baseball, trying to fit in to a whole new world. I like his cousin too. He's amoral but appealing. Maybe we see him being protective of someone, so he doesn't come off as a complete villain. Girl cousin can be spunky; she's on the assimilation fast track. Aunt and Uncle are decent people (after all, they've taken M in), but somewhat overwhelmed with issues of language and money. Maybe M's baseball buddy isn't any sweetheart either, but sees M as a way the team can make it to the championship; the team in its own way is exploiting M just as much as the gang is. Heh.

Now if M is older, shrewder, meaner, it's a whole other story. He's got to be strong, or at least have the potential to grow. I think it's better if he's somewhat of a realist; I really want to avoid M The Victim just as much as I want to avoid M The Criminal. Same really with all the characters. None of them (including the gang leader) should be all bad or all good. That would be too easy.

Enough, enough! This is a book I'm never going to write. It's way beyond what I can do. But it's exactly the way I people a story. I use the characters to propel the plot, but the plot is dependent on the characters as well. M The Victim is a whole other story, same as M The Criminal or M The Chess Player.

Oh, by the way, please notice how little The Story Of M resembles The Bad News Bears. That's the great thing about starting off points. What you end up with is your theme, your story, your characters, your multi-millions.

Next week, I'll cover outlining your story (quicker and less boring than you might fear), followed by one final blog entry to tie up loose strings. And then you'll all go off and write masterpieces and make those multi-millions.

I ask only that you, oh beloved slowly gained readership, remember me at Christmas, preferably with small deposits in my soon to be established Swiss banking account.


Anonymous said...

What is Miranda's last name? I am doing a summer reading prodject that requires the character's last names.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Anonymous-

It's Evans (Miranda introduces herself at the very end of LAWKI).