Real character or mannequin?

What’s the secret?

You know what I mean. Not the secret to your success (although I am interested to hear that, too) or the secret to your grilling technique (again … I am interested). I’m asking, “What’s your secret?”

Answering that is one of the beauties of writing fiction. You need to create a character, name the character, maybe even toss in a clever nickname. You’ve got hair color, hair length, hair type (wavy, straight, maybe no hair), height, body type, blah blah blah. Sure, that’s all important, but I’ve just described a mannequin, an empty form with a name. Add a favorite color. A quirk that you wouldn’t expect. (I sometimes symmetrically arrange the food on my plate; don’t even notice most of the time). Tell me your character’s best time of day: night owl, early bird, mid-day masher? Give me some background: middle child, only child, lost a finger in shop class, maybe a sixth toe? (Super cool!) Adopted? (Adoption and foster kids are a common link in most of what I write).

Now give your character a secret. Something she’s done that no one else (or only your wife/BFF) knows about. Give every character a secret, and suddenly you’ve got depth. Not that you’ll tell-all in your story or novel, but that character will be more real to YOU. And until that happens, the character is nothing but a mannequin on paper.
And who wants to read about a mannequin?

Not every secret needs to be dark or terrible, but there can be plenty of those, too. I once worked with a woman who told me that when she was a kid, she’d climb over the neighbor’s fence and pick an apple or two. The neighbor finally told her parents and she was punished.

So she burned the neighbor’s house down.

Crazy? Made up? There’s never been a moment that I doubted it. Her demeanor, body language, almost nonchalant recounting of the event all testified of a cold heart that probably suffered a great wound as a child – but a cold, dark heart that had no hint of remorse in telling the story the same way someone might say, “I got in trouble because the neighbor told my parents, so I snuck over to his house one night and stomped his marigolds.” Seriously. I remember it like this: “So I burned the SOB’s house down. Are you going out for lunch or eating in the office?”

The story came alive as a defining moment in the childhood of Hannah Abigail Lincoln, the main protagonist in my unfinished work, “Chasing the Devil.”

HERE’S THE EXCERPT

The moment the neighbors drive away, Hannah hopped the fence, emptied a can of lighter fluid on the refinished chest and wardrobe on the patio, and struck a match. The flash caught one of her sleeves on fire. She quickly dropped the can and plunged her arm into a nearby birdbath.

Hannah raced to her bedroom, changed her shirt and soothed the burn with aloe salve, something she knew to do to treat burns. She had experience.

The sirens were faint at first and then louder.

“Hannah, we need to talk,” her mother shouted as she came upstairs. Elizabeth Lincoln stepped into her daughter’s room. Hannah dropped the burned shirt.

“Um, sweety? Did you know the Bentley’s house is on fire?”

Hannah had no response.

“I saw you climbing over that fence.” Her mother paused. “Hannah, did you pick another apple?”

The little girl heard her mother’s admonitions echoing in her mind: Bravery, Hannah. Courage, Hannah. Don’t slouch like a whore, Hannah. Hannah clenched her teeth and stepped toward her mother.

“The Bentleys are just weak,” Hannah said. “Rednecks.”

Elizabeth Lincoln reached out and drew her daughter close.

“Yes, baby doll,” her mother said, giving her a firm hug. “I love you.”

(Ed. note: It’s the only memory Hannah has of her mother’s hug).

PRAYING FOR THE PLANE TO CRASH

Maybe the secret is less sinister. A stand-up sort of guy who, for some reason, once stole his neighbor’s mail. (I’m brainstorming here). A school teacher who, despite cheating in college to earn her bachelor’s degree, has turned out to be quite a teacher and is about to be promoted to principal – or superintendent. A hilarious secret? A shy man eats an entire pie that is about to be presented to the retiring superintendent – or the Queen of England. (“Who ate Her Majesty’s custard pie?”) Maybe not something all that BAD or illegal, but not something you’d want to admit. No matter how many years go by, YOU still remember.

When I was a kid, I had an uncle who flew radio-control, model airplanes. Cool, huh? Not really. I resented that we drove 700 miles to visit my grandparents only to see the neighboring cousins called right away to join us, where they continued to be the center of attention. I visited maybe once a year; they lived right … over … there. (Extend your arm, point your finger … yeah, right over there). Once we were whisked across the pasture to the cousin’s house – a huge home with a lake – where we had a cook-out and obligatory viewing of my uncle flying his radio-control airplane. I actually bowed my head and prayed that the plane would crash.

And it did.

Whew. I feel better. Up to now, only four or five people have heard this confession. Now, if I count Twitter, Facebook, email subscribers and anyone else who stumbles across Jackson’s Journal, that’s another 1,100 people.

Maybe you don’t want to share YOUR secret. But give me some ideas for future and existing characters. C’mon …

What’s the secret?

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Filed under Family, Living Write, MIP: Memoir-in-progress, WIPs

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