In The Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy writes of a man in the throws of sex with his wife, shouting “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.”
If I read such a thing on Facebook, I’d probably say, “TMI.” But it’s typical Conroy, obvious in most of his books, writing on the edge describing the most strange, outlandish, sick, and horrific moments in the lives of his characters, moments we can’t un-see, would be shocked if we thought of such things, and having stepped over the edge with a writer who is “out there,” we are drawn “out there,” too, and for my money, nothing beats the mind’s confusion of such prose that’s better than torrid sex (“thank you, Jesus”).
I am in awe of anyone who can write on (or over) the edge and remain mostly sane.
Conroy’s inclusion of such moments in his plots is heightened by the fact they do not comprise a farce, but a balanced interaction between the most absurd and the most beautiful, and between the best of sin and the best of grace. Writing also in The Prince of Tides, he says:
“I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,’ and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater. My soul grazes like a lamb on the beauty of indrawn tides.”
The Prince of Tides is my living Bible of how to write well from well-formed characters to well-formed locations. I keep the book close at hand on my desk next to my copy of Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel which–if read carefully– teaches prospective writers how to write on the edge or, perhaps, over it.
Some say Stephen King’s On Writing is better. Perhaps, but it doesn’t speak to me because I want writing books that show me how to jump off cliffs and walk through fire and say things that cause readers to blush and shout, “TMI.”
There’s a danger to writing at the edge: “it might kill you.” But what if it doesn’t? You look down, read what you have written, and find blood on the page. If you can see your blood holding the words together, then the edge didn’t kill you. Maybe tomorrow, but today the words are wonderful and they sing songs the world needs to hear.
This is a terrific story, filled with fabulous characters, some definitely nastier than others, and great fun, too, at least in parts. Others are still horrible to contemplate from our slightly more secure seats nearly 70 years on. Reader Review of the audiobook.
“Great characters are the key to great fiction. A high-octane plot is nothing without credible, larger-than-life, highly developed en-actors to make it meaningful.” – Donald Maass in “Writing the Breakout Novel”
“I do a basic outline and a basic character sketch of my main characters. I find it helpful to have an idea where I’m going, even if I diverge, which I often do. I like to really think about all my characters’ backstories and motivations. Even if they aren’t central to the plot, I need to understand who they are to bring them to life.” – S. J. Laidlaw in an interview with Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Quick. What are your characters doing just before you tell their story? You need to know this even if you’re not going to mention it.
Let’s say your muse has hauled you back into the 19th century. The day is cold. People are shopping, making their way home, thinking about what? You need to know what whether you tell your reader or not. A mother and a daughter, perhaps, are walking along a well-traveled street, heading home where they will find, perhaps, a burning house or a warm meal or a message from a friend.
You know their names, I’ll bet. Perhaps you wrote their names down on a sheet of paper and listed their ages, the color of their hair and eyes, whether they’re fat or thin or short or tall, and even a favorite song/book/meal/season. Is it time to write your story?
Maybe yes, maybe no. Some people—S. J. Laidlaw— for example, want to outline their plots and ponder their characters before they say, “Once upon a time.” Others—myself included—want to figure out where the story is going and who the characters are while writing the first draft.
Ponder First, Write Later, or Vice Versa
If you ponder before writing, you might call the little girl “Helen” and call her mother “Anne” and then start visualizing how Helen spends her day at school, with friends, and around the house; and then you’re thinking about Anne and whether she’s sewing, cooking, answering letters or trying out for a part in a play or writing about her recent trip to the Azores. None of that’s in the story about the burning house, warm meal or the message from a friend, but you need to know it.
If you discover your characters while writing, perhaps a colorful doll in a shop window will catch Helen’s eye and, while walking down the cold street, she’ll think about her doll house at home next to the window that looks out on a dull alley, something you didn’t know about until you wrote the words, and while Helen is thinking about the dolls in the house and how they might interact with the doll in the shop window, Anne is thinking about the shocking news story on page one of the morning paper about an arsonist. Well, that’s interesting.
Getting to Know You (your characters, that is)
Either way, your story won’t get memorable characters if all you do is tell their story. You need to know each of them like a lover, a mentor, a brother, a sister, a parent, a priest or a spouse. Now you’re getting somewhere, getting to the point where your characters fulfill some of the bullet points in Maass’ book such as “engrossing characters are out of the ordinary” and/or that larger-than-life characters “have conflicting sides and are conscious of self.”
Suffice it to say, memorable characters probably don’t spend their evenings watching “American Idol” or reality shows about cooking or buying a new house. They can, but only if it takes them from ordinary to out-of-the-ordinary like, say, learning that Hannibal Lecter watches “Chopped” on the Food Network, or that sweet little Helen looked into a tiny crystal ball in her doll house and saw an episode of “Survivor: Philippines” and thought tribal council was a real event in the future.
If you were to see me on a city street standing in front of a book store and thought, hmm, there’s a story in that, I might end up (in your mystery/thriller) throwing a brick through the window before stealing the money out of the cash register. Or, I might end up smiling at the crowd there before going inside to sign copies of my latest novel, er, Lust in the Poison Ivy. Either way, who I am before that story begins is part of my motivation, the choices I’ll make, the way I’ll feel while throwing the brick or autographing a book, and the way I interact with the other characters.
You’ll Never Tell All You Know
Perhaps your readers will never know for sure why I threw the brick, but you better know. Maybe they won’t know that Lust in the Poison Ivy is based, in part, on a bittersweet affair I once had in a patch of English Ivy years before most of my readers were born: then, when a red-haired girl approaches and I see her smile, you know she reminds me of somebody I knew long ago and that that’s why I say something special in her copy of my book.
Sooner or later, you finish your short story or novel. You’re ready to send it to a publisher. At this point, it’s late in the realm of story creation, and so I’m wondering if you’ll know what your characters were doing after you wrote the words “The End.” If you do, then the chances are good they’re really three dimensional and will move your readers to laughter, joy, horror, tears or adventure.