To you they are wax, but to me, their creator, they live and breathe.
— Crane Wilbur, House of Wax
Recently, I had to take a break from writing for health reasons. (Ug, surgery. Be gone, headaches!) Though I’ll still be working on the final edit of Unbounded for another few weeks, this short break allowed me to think a bit about the other story. I’m excited to begin writing book #2, not just because it’s new, but because it’ll pose fresh challenges.
This new story will be set in West Virginia–at least, I’m fairly sure of that now. I’ve been gathering research materials and reading about the people and their many Scottish- and German-influenced dialects. I’ll need to learn about the land, and how those dialects might change from one part of the state to another. I want my new cast of characters to come through authentically.
And Characters (capital C) they are! Unbounded has a few true Characters, too, but book #2 seems to want nothing but. I overheard someone speaking about a girl the other day: “She’s so tall and thin, with bulbous blue eyes and platinum blond hair, and she writes all over her arms in pen.” She’s mine now. A perfect addition to my cast of Characters.
It didn’t occur to me until recently why this story seems to beg so many unique people.
It’s because of the setting. Not because people from West Virginia are different from the rest of us, but because of where I’ll be plunking them. They won’t be hanging out in interesting clubs or jetting to Europe. They won’t even be hanging out at home, able to pick up a phone or chat with Aunt Maybelle in the kitchen. They’ll be outdoors most of the time. Traveling the state. On foot.
You can probably see how I might be limited.
I set Unbounded in three locations–upstate New York; Castine, Maine; and Rome, Italy. Because of that, I was able to pull unique details from the various locales to enrich the story: a journey to the Mouth of Truth in Rome or a secret underground bar or the Pantheon. These places not only provided something visually interesting to describe but brought built-in opportunities for conflict. Who’s going to lie at the Mouth of Truth? Are the skulls on the walls at the underground bar the remains of an old crypt? What happens when you’re caught in the rain at the Pantheon, and it’s pouring down on you through the oculus?
I won’t have the benefit of as many richly varied settings in book #2, but I’ll try to make the most of what I can. Earthy, muddy, boggy places. The scorn of Mother Nature. But because the setting runs the risk of being one note, I’ll make sure I can cull plenty of conflict from the bare storyline and my Characters’ interactions with one another. The girl who writes all over her arms could meet up with a compulsive hand washer–though I doubt the hand washer would trek through the wilderness in the first place. Still, you see what I mean about setting up instant conflict.
I wanted to round this post out with a voice more authoritative than mine, so I picked up James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II, and found the perfect chapter, Of Wimps and Wackos: Creating Truly Memorable Characters. Wacky characters can automatically make a story more compelling because they’re compelling, says Frey; they’re worth knowing.
Great characters are so extraordinarily interesting that if you met them at a cocktail party you’d later want to tell others about them… Great characters are often a little wacky. Some are even more than a little wacky, they’re out there on the lunatic fringe. Readers are charmed by wacky, theatrical characters. Wacky characters are often exaggerated, flamboyant, colorful, ditsy, dizzy, and contrary… In detective fiction, there’s Hercule Poirot, who sleeps with a hair net and is exceedingly vain about his waxed mustache. Nero Wolfe raises orchids and never leaves his home. A little wacky, that, don’t you think? How about Sherlock Holmes? He plays a violin all night and shoots up with morphine.
The creation of wacky characters is fun. One way is simply to take a trait and exaggerate it. A fanatical love of hamburgers, say. Or hatred of snakes, or bugs, or sharks. Or an obsessive love of Edsels, or electronic eavesdropping, or a compulsive need to examine tongues or put clothes on cats. Extremism in anything will serve.
Here’s what Frey writes about wacky characters and conflict:
Wacky characters not only add spice to your story, they make a good contrast to your serious characters. In other words, they act as a foil. The use of foils is a literary device for enhancing the traits of one character by contrasting them with the totally opposite traits of another. In Pride and Prejudice, as an example, Darcy, Elizabeth’s suitor, is a serious character who is contrasted with Elizabeth’s sister Lydia’s suitor, Wickham, a wacky con man. Hooper, the serious, scientific biologist in Jaws, is in sharp contrast to the wacky shark hunter, Quint. In Carrie, Carrie’s mother is about as wacky a character as you’ll find. She contrasts perfectly with the earnest, sincere, vulnerable Carrie.
Like Crane Wilbur, I love making my creations live and breathe; it’s one of my favorite parts of being a writer.
How do you go about creating characters? Do you like working with wacky characters, and why? What’s your favorite part of being a writer?
(If any of you are from West Virginia and would like to contribute thoughts about your state and its people, please send a note to me at firstname.lastname@example.org .)
Write on, all!