You get so many points if you know what movie that line comes from. At Ithaca, when Lady and I got really stressed out and needed to decompress, we’d to run to Wegmans and buy a box of popsicles, the red, white & blue kind that look like rocket. Then we’d sit in my dorm room and watch that movie over and over again and eat all the popsicles, because it’s not like anyone ever kept anything frozen in the little teeny tiny freezer section of a college fridge. After half a box of popsicles and two to three rounds of reciting the lines along with the movie, we’d be ready to conquer the world again.
That story is, in some ways, a major digression from what I want to tell you. I want to tell you how Van, my main character, came into existence. In some ways, she did just appear.
When I went back to school, I took an advanced fiction class with the brilliant Sarah Freligh. She gave us a writing exercise. It was a conceit. She gave us a handout. We had to take a word from column A and another word from column B and put them together to make a sentence. I chose randomly. Separation and battle were my words. “Separation is a battle” was my sentence.
Then we had to scribble down a paragraph or two, putting our sentence into dialogue in a scene of our choosing. I wrote this god-awful, melodramatic, piece of crap about a man who’s fiance was breaking up with him. They were standing in a field and her hair was blowing and she was giving him the ring back and she said something awful like, “Separation is a battle. It’s a battle no one can win. We fight to hold on, but it’s searing and hot and we reach our threshold and we have to let go.” It was the kind of dreck that you write and then you pray you don’t die before you get a chance to destroy it or write something better to redeem yourself. I’m not being humble or anything. It was that bad.
Later in the semester, Sarah had us take an old exercise and rewrite it three different ways, changing something major like tense, or setting, or point of view. I chose the Separation exercise, because it was so bad that I figured I’d have a lot of room for improvement. By my third rewrite, I had Van. She was the fiance. She was a smart ass, but she had a lot of heart. There was something about her that made me want to know more.
I wrote a fifty page story about Van running into Starbucks to tell her best friend, Janie, how she just broke up with her fiance. She was heartbroken, but she was trying to be tough and witty about it. Van had some fantastic lines. Her relationship with Janie was really complicated. I worked on the story for a month and then sent it in to Zoetrope: All-Story.
It was my first submission ever (and I was so overly ambitious in my choice of where to send it, that it’s embarrassing). I got a personalized rejection. They liked the story, but the dialogue was weird. It wasn’t for them, but I should keep trying, because there was something there. I didn’t keep trying. I shoved the story in my file cabinet. I celebrated getting a personal rejection, but I was busy writing a novel. A painful, SERIOUS, heartbreaking novel that was so literary no one could even understand what was happening, not even me – it was just that DEEP. But, I hated working on it. It was like pulling teeth to get myself to sit in that chair and type. And it wasn’t good, because (and I know this is horribly cheesy) I wasn’t being true to myself.
After graduation, I tried to freelance, but I couldn’t make enough to pay my health insurance. I met J. I got a job. I got promoted. I got promoted again. We bought a house. We got married. I worked more hours than any human being should ever work (you know the epsiode of Friends where Phoebe is a stockbroker? That was me). Some other things happened (but that’s another story for another time). I didn’t write, and I didn’t feel like me anymore.
I changed jobs. This one was just as soul-sucking and horrible as the last one, but Sarah asked me to join a new writing group she was starting, and it made me feel a little more optimistic about everything. J encouraged me to do it.
I brought that story of Van and Janie in Starbucks. There was a line in it where Van says, sarcastically, “I am winning battles all over the place today,” as she tears the head off the Starbucks lady on her napkin. I felt like I needed to win a battle. I decided I’d fix the dialogue in that story and send it out again and it would get published and I’d feel like a writer. Instead, I accidentally wrote a novel.
I kept wondering what happened before that scene in Starbucks. What was really going on with Van and Janie? Van’s fiance wasn’t relevant. He had to go. Van and Janie, and Janie’s fiance, Peter – they were interesting. So I wrote about them.
We got Argo. I got stuck. I realized Van needed a dog too. One day, when I was raking leaves in the back yard, everything else fell into place in my head. Of the original fifty pages, there’s about a page and a half that made it into the novel. No one ever goes to Starbucks, and I’ve deleted way more than I’ve kept. The story isn’t at all the same, and Van has evolved so much, but I would never have gotten here without spending time with Van and Janie in Starbucks.
There’s a part of writing that is actual work, and then there’s a part of writing that’s just letting things happen – letting your brain do what it wants to do while the rest of your body is just being, or doing yard work, or taking a shower, or going for a run. That’s why writing exercises work. You have a set time and a set task and it gives you permission to stop thinking so you can actually create something.
So, here’s my advice for developing characters:
1. Writing exercises work. Do them, even if you think they’re silly.
2. Delete fearlessly and don’t be afraid to make major changes. (I keep copies of each version so I can go back if I need to. It makes it easier to hit the delete key, but I almost never go back to salvage anything.)
3. Don’t write what you think you should be writing. Write what you want to write. Fall in love with your characters, and if you can’t, create new characters. If you don’t love them, nobody else will.
4. Ask yourself what’s interesting about your characters. What do you want to know about them? The answers might give you a lead on where to take them. Ask yourself questions about them that may not even seem relevant to the story. Allow yourself to write their back stories, even if you don’t think you’ll ever use that material. It will give you a better understanding of who they are.
5. If it’s not working, don’t force it. Take a break. Watch a movie. Go for a walk. Rake leaves. Let yourself daydream. Not all writing happens while sitting at a computer.
6. Popsicles are very important, as are best friends, supportive husbands, and writing groups (not necessarily in that order).
A few weeks ago, I was really and truly stuck. I sat down with a popsicle (just one, and it was the kind made with real fruit and no food coloring, because I am older now and concerned about things like artificial ingredients and too many calories) and watched that movie again – the one Lady and I used to watch ad nauseum. I gave my brain a break, and when the movie was over, I was ready to make things appear again.