Character vs. Story

Snarky Muse: Why are you so mean to your characters?

Me: Hey, they face adversity. This is how they grow. This is what makes them interesting. I want to write about characters and stories that captivate me. Usually, they come from some amalgam of people or events that have impacted my world; people I’ve envied, mishaps I’ve condoled. I don’t polish my characters; they’re flawed.

Snarky Muse: You outright torture them.

Me: I subject them to the limits. They’re usually up against something they must change—externally or internally—and this is the hardest thing in the world for them to do. Readers don’t need to like, or even sympathize with my characters. But by the end, readers should feel some compassion for them—no matter how flawed the characters may be—and in this way, readers invest themselves in how it all turns out.

Snarky Muse: You’re going to sit there and pretend that you NEVER impose story onto your characters?

Me: Plot grows from one’s characters. The story develops from their actions. Characters should never serve as pawns for some plot you’ve just dreamed up. The development of relationships creates plot. It’s necessary to know who they are, to delve up as much as possible about the interior life of your characters as possible. Not just their externals, but their essences. What happens in their faces when they’re nervous, or bored, or thinking. Characters come from us, so there will be facets of these characters we identify with … But we have to hurt them, anyway. 

Snarky Muse: Jesus, you’re dark. So where do you get your ideas?

Me: I don’t really have ideas as much as I “see” characters and scenes. In Moondogg, there are references to several Russian novels. I remember looking at illustrations of Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” by the expressionist painter Alice Neel, and it got me thinking about a key scene in the novel that I’d read back in university—when Christ returns to Earth and is told by the church that he’s no longer needed. My protagonist, Jerome, Jerome Doggman, undergoes the same kind of dismissal.

Snarky Muse: You abused the living hell out of that guy. Didn’t you have him killed twice and then send him to the moon? If that’s your protagonist, I’d hate to see what you do to your enemies.

Me: Author Anne Lamott says, “A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly.” 

My latest novel, “Project Purple”, emerged from a conjoining of two mediums—the first being a PBS TV series called “Colonial House”, and the second being an extraordinary novel about the harrowing saga of the Donner party called “The Indifferent Stars Above.” Somehow the ordeals of these people from different centuries fused. I think “Project Purple” seeks to understand what it takes to draw on one’s inner survivor. 

Snarky Muse: You drowned them, you poisoned them, you stoned them, and castrated them, and scalped them. Not too many of them were able to draw on their inner survivor. 

Me: Molly Ivins says that freedom fighters don’t always win, but they’re always right. The point is we all know we’re going to die. What’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.” 

Snarky Muse: What do you do when your work isn’t going well?

Me: I keep writing. The only way out of any kind of block is THROUGH. And who gets to decide that the work isn’t going well, anyway? I learned long ago that a “bad” day of writing is still a good day. You have to write through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. A great reporter, David Carr, says, “Keep typing till it becomes writing.”

Snarky Muse: That is what outright torture sounds like to me. 

Me: (reciting with eloquence) “All my life one of my greatest desires has been to travel—to see and touch unknown countries, to swim in unknown seas, to circle the globe, observing new lands, seas, people, and ideas with insatiable appetite, to see everything for the first time and for the last time, casting a slow, prolonged glance, then to close my eyes and feel the riches deposit themselves inside me calmly or stormily according to their pleasure, until time passes them at last through its fine sieve, straining the quintessence out of all the joys and sorrows.” That’s from “Report to Greco” by Kazantzakas.

Snarky Muse: You just inserted that last bit because your name is Greco.

Me: We must all Eat the delicious food, say the truth we’ve been carrying in our hearts like secret treasure. Be silly. Be weird. Be kind. None of us are getting out of here alive. 

Snarky Muse: Is that another Greco quote?

Me: A lot of people say it.

Snarky Muse: I’d like to end this segment on some kind of high note, so I’ll just call you pretentious and second rate, and leave it at that.

Me: (blushing under the rare compliment)


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