Saturday, November 12, 2011

When Character(s) Presents Itself

Scott D. Parker

I enjoyed the Da Vinci Code. I dug Jurassic Park. I like network crime dramas, and I rock out to KISS.

Deep thinkers? Weighty tomes? Gritty television? Not at all. I'm simple that way, for better or for worse. I love story, a something that propels me to read, watch, or listen. I find character studies for the sake of character studies to be, well, boring. My recent experience reading Lev Grossman's The Magicians made that loud and clear. I was bored through almost the entire book and, at the end, when I read rave reviews about the depth of character in the book, I realized what the book was really about. Oh, thought I, so that's what he was trying to say. That's cool, but couldn't there have been more action?

Perhaps it's my ability to check my brain on page 1, the door of the movie theater, or when I flip a channel. Maybe I'm okay with eating pablum every now and then. It's easy to digest and doesn't taste too bad.

Take Robert Langdon, the hero from the Da Vinci Code. Did I care about his childhood or what made him tick? Nope. I wanted to follow him through the maze and find out the truth. But, and this is key, he revealed his character through his actions. As Jay wrote on Thursday, "plot reveals character." Granted, Langdon's still not very deep a character, but the ride sure was fun. And, when I pick up a book or watch something, most of the time, I'm just in it for the show.

My Own Characters

Except for the characters I write. That's when I want to know all there is to know about them. Here, too, is where Jay's point is made abundantly clear: plot does indeed reveal a character. And it is in this arena where I follow the opposite advice I give for plotting.

Last week, I revealed myself to be an avid plotter. When it comes to characters, I am the wait-and-see guy. Take, for example, Carl Hancock. He is the co-star of my Harry Truman mystery. When I came time to write this book, I knew that I could not have Truman in serious danger so I needed a cast of fictional characters, primarily a partner for the mystery Truman investigated. I'll freely admit that, when I wrote page 1, Hancock was cardboard. I did exactly the same thing Russel mentioned yesterday: I described Hancock--slightly with a Texas caricature--and just put him through the story. What happened during the next few weeks and months surprised me.

Hancock started living and breathing on his own. He started doing things I never anticipated or planned for him. The deeper into the novel I got, the more I started to notice about him. Little things he did revealed his nature and the way he thought. My fellow readers picked up on it, too, and told me that the Hancock character was was the most fully formed of my fictional characters. It happened all because I let him breathe and gave him space to flex his muscles.

Calvin Carter, my railroad detective, nearly transformed himself over the course of three stories. When the first story started, he was merely the avenging son. By the end of that tale, however, he had transformed into the showy actor he was. The second story brought him a new set of character traits I hadn't even considered, while the third one solidified the ways in which he conducts his investigations and his actions. He's best with an audience and, if there isn't one, he'll wait.

The Biggest Obstacle to Overcome

Characters and their traits might just be the biggest obstacle I face when I write. With my insistence on knowing an entire story arc before I set pen to paper, there is mounting evidence that I subconsciously want the same for my characters. I want to know how they'll react to *every* situation before I even get to it. And it can paralyze me. Which is why Russel's post from yesterday was such a nice thing to read. He reminds us writers that we don't need to know all that stuff. Know a few things and let the story show you how your character will react. They'll be less like cardboard and more like real people if you do.

Playing Adam

Last Sunday, Joelle wrote about how she picks names. One of her characters found her name when Joelle scanned Facebook. I do something similar but much more analog: I look around my writing room.

I have two main bookshelves in here. The one my grandfather built contains paperbacks, the other one, an Ikea model, has the trade paperbacks, my annotated Sherlock Holmes, and my old tabloid-sized comics from the 1970s. So, when it comes time for me to come up with a name, I merely look around my room and put two names together.

Mrs. Hurley, the lady proprietor who runs the hotel in which Truman and Hancock stay during their investigation? The chancellor of the university from which I earned a Masters in history (the diploma's on the wall). Thomas Jackson, the partner of Calvin Carter? Play on a historical figure that one. And Carter himself. Originally, I thought of calling him Collins (because I have Max Allen Collins novels on the shelves) but scraped it on account of the possessive problem (Collins' or Collins's). Carter came from the ether or the subconscious, I don't know where, but "Calvin" emerged from one source: my Calvin and Hobbes collections. Plus, you've got the John Calvin influence, but, c'mon: Calvin Carter was named after a six-year-old boy. It's just more fun that way.

Album of the Week 1: Songs of Mirth and Melancholy by Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo. How does one describe this nine-song collection? Yes, there are jazz elements, but those only take up 1/3 of the album. Taking a cue from the chamber music of the 19th Century, Marsalis (saxes) and Calderazzo (piano) basically make 21st Century chamber music with jazz influences. These are songs, not merely templates for improvisation. Marsalis's tone on these tracks is simply gorgeous, rich, full, broad, dripping with emotion. Calderazzo's piano is, at times, Chopinesque and Monkish. I love albums that are difficult to classify. This one is my new favorite.

Album of the Week 2: The Good Feeling by the Christian McBride Big Band. On the other end of the spectrum is this first album by McBride's big band. Brash yet moody, audacious yet subtle, this is a group that modernizes the type of ensemble that flourished in the 1930s but is fresh as now, and brings with it echoes of all the decades in between. Whether you want the fast, loud propulsion of hard bop, or the soundtrack-ish influences of the mid 1970s, there is something for every taste. As a member of a local big band here in Houston, I'm always on the look out for fresh takes on this kind of ensemble. McBride writes over half of the tunes here, so you can rest assured that the tradition of the big band is alive and well.

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