When The Strangers Come Visiting . . .

I know people who write with index cards.  People who outline.  People who do mounds and mounds and mounds of research to understand every nuance of setting, costuming, language etc. before they write a single word.

Me?  I just start talking to my characters.  And I keep talking until they answer.  (If they don’t, they’re not the right characters.) Once they answer, the conversation begins.  And they make me laugh.  And they make me cry.  And they piss me off.

Okay, let me back up a step.  Because as much as my characters write my plays, I don’t usually start with them.  I start with a question.  It used to always be “What if?”.   What if you had to wait in a small room with five other women to find out which one of you is now a widow?  What if you had to take a road trip with your daughter’s best friend or your best friend’s mother?  These days the questions are less situational.  How do we know who we are if we don’t remember the experiences that shape us?  Can we ever really let go of the past?  Are we justified in becoming like those we oppose in order to right a wrong?

Then the characters blossom.  Sometimes they arrive fully formed like the huge bouquets I delivered when I worked for a florist.  Sometimes they need to be carefully cultivated – watered, fed, pruned.  Sometimes, like the poinsettia I bought my daughter for Christmas 2010, they refuse to go away – even when I neglect them.  Sometimes I think I’m planting tulips and, instead, daffodils poke their noses up.  And sometimes, as much as I want them, as much as I think I need them, they refuse to appear.  And later I realize the play is much better without them.

But eventually my characters move in.  They join me for coffee – or whatever their beverage of choice is.  They teach me things I never knew about subjects I never thought much about.  (Okay, I get my information from googling – but they make me do it!)  They show me their vulnerable side – their compulsions and obsessions and quirks.  They change their names and their occupations and sometimes even their gender.  They become so real that it is as weird to me that my family can’t see them as it is for my family that I can.

If I can be quiet and patient, the characters will shape the story and take it where it needs to go.  If I can get out of their way and write the words they say, the story moves along – usually in a fairly linear fashion.  There are a few scenes that might appear and sit on the side of the road until I figure out where to fit them in. And then – usually about the time I am writing the act break – I find the ending.  And, now that I know where my characters are headed, I can help them find their way.

Then they move out.  While I am revising and editing, my characters pick up the phone and call once in a while.  But like kids going away to college, they have moved out – moved on.  And my family breathes a little easier without all these extra bodies to trip over.  And I mourn a little.  But only a little.  Because I know that very shortly there will be a gentle knock on the door.  Or, if I’m very lucky, the incessant ring of someone leaning on the doorbell demanding to be let in.  And I’ll throw the door open and exclaim, “Come on in, honey.  Let me fix you a drink, and we’ll sit and chat a while . . .”

  1. #1 by Jonnie Martin on June 6, 2012 - 11:37 am

    Yes, this rings so right-on. If I don’t wake up with my main characters and go to bed with them at night and write from a dream-state, my story stays wooden and journalistic.

  2. #2 by priceswrite on June 6, 2012 - 3:29 pm

    It’s great to find others talk to the “voices” too. Seriously though, I love getting to know my characters. Right now, one of them is very, very different than I thought . . . and I’m working hard at letting her go where she needs to.

  3. #3 by Safe and Sound Video on June 6, 2012 - 6:33 pm

    I don’t write fiction but I had a somewhat similar experience, so I think I understand where you’re coming from.

    About 12 years ago I was working on a piece about a German U-boat that had attacked a ship at the mouth of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island right at the end of World War II. It was subsequently attacked and sunk right by the US Navy.

    I researched for months and months. I spoke to divers who visited the wreck. I spoke to men who commanded the US ships that sank the U-Boat. I spoke to experts in the field and I spoke to U-boat veterans.

    I wanted to understand the men involved – their feelings, motivations, fears, and confidences.

    Then, all that information sloshed around in my brain for a month or so and suddenly, out of the blue, I just knew it was time. I sat down at my desk and typed up a 2,500 word article in one fell swoop.

  4. #4 by priceswrite on June 6, 2012 - 6:55 pm

    Very interesting. Earlier today I was wondering if this applied only to fiction. Clearly not. I think the key to understanding events like is seeing it from the human side – not the facts and figures.

    As for the German U-boat – never knew there was one in Narragansett Bay. I know Gaspee Point is nowhere near the mouth of the bay, but that would have been way cool to have two enemy ships meet their end there. (For those who don’t know their Rhode Island history, google Gaspee ship.)

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