This week: You Did WHAT to Your Character?Edited by: Fyn
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"Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live."~~Norman Cousins
"Death ends a life, not a relationship."~~ Robert Benchley
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived."~~Henry David Thoreau
"For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,"~~William Shakespeare, Hamlet.
I recently lost a lifelong mentor, friend and second 'mom.' She has ever been a sounding board, critic, editor and motivator. She would read anything I sent her and could be counted on for excellent feedback whether I liked it or not. She never failed to be brutally honest, nit-picking-ly precise and a veritable font of obscure knowledge. She was quite possibly the most well read person I shall ever encounter. And, she was persistent in her pushing for me to be the best writer and person I could possibly be. She abhorred excuses, would never accept anything less than 100%, and had the most lovely way of expressing herself when I finally nailed something.
I knew she was dying, she was in a hospice and surrounded by friends and family, on this, her final journey. I thought I was prepared. I wasn't. I spent a week in that La-la Land of grief; where focusing was difficult, where it seemed that everything reminded me of her and where tears would flow at the least provocation. I loved her dearly and she left a huge hole behind. After a week, I've accepted the loss, I miss her terribly and I can hear her telling me to get on 'with stuff' and get my act together. I'm trying.
But it got me to thinking about the phraseology or euphemisms we use for death. Because I did what I always do when trying to deal with a major change, I turned to my writing. And then I realized that the poem I really wanted to write about her was simply not going to come in to focus just yet. What else I realized, after I turned to my novel that has been stagnant for several months, was that one of my major (and favorite) characters needed to die before the story could progress in the direction it needed to go.
So now there were two things I was thinking about. The terms we use to describe death and how to have my character 'die.' I just used 'lost' and 'journey.' We use pass away, passed on, the dearly departed, gone, and new horizon. We don't like to say 'died.' Sounds too final, perhaps? People depart and return, journeys are usually round-trip, lost things are found and things passed on are usually passed along more than once. Oh. Wait. The journey to that final destination. There is that, but why the 'lost' then? Lost to us?
On with the writing and getting my character out of the picture. I checked the Thesaurus and found oodles of terms for death and dying. Some, given circumstance, personalities and relationships are more appropriate than others given any particular set of people, or now, in this case, characters.
How to have them die. Surrounded by family in a peaceful setting? Unexpectedly in a car accident or suddenly due to a heart attack? Did I want it to be horrible or simply have them dying of old age? Did I want it to be a tragic end? Granted, it has to fit the story, and not become a major focal point. Yet it also has to compel other characters to do certain things. Given an elderly woman who is a bit on the, shall we say, 'gently' controlling side, I expect she will meet her end in a typically, for her, sedate manner.
In my case, this is an important character to the main character. The reader knows of her and how she molded and influenced him. But she is not one with whom the reader is invested, so to speak. If she were a character who had been present in the last five books I wrote, a reader favorite, I should have to handle her death different from how I shall in this particular case. Even still, this is an opportunity that I shall use to further the story along.
One of the things that, for me, is a stopper in books is when someone dies and somehow all the 'stuff' that happens afterward is lost in the shuffle. The characters just go on with their lives as if nothing momentous has happened. Funerals or memorials are cursory. Just as in real life we seem to need that closure, so to do our characters. Besides, it is an added occasion to show what our characters, their friends and families are made of--what their characters are truly like in a time of loss, sorrow, or in some cases, 'unnatural' glee. Who's concerned with the will? Who truly cares? Who is there to be seen. Were they buried or cremated? Were ashes flung from a bi-plane over Lake Michigan or scattered along a mountain stream? Were they kept in a hand-made wooden box or porcelain urn? Are they kept on the mantle in the drawing room or in a box in the basement? Were they tossed in the backseat on the drive from the funeral home, put in the trunk or seat-belted in the front seat? Do the characters talk to the urn? And if so, what is it that is said? There is much opportunity, in death, to explore the characters and their individual motivations.
Why roses, or daffodils or lilacs at a service? Is it a military funeral? Is it formal or not? Afterward, is it a wake or a party with folks sharing stories and memories? What happens as the liquor flows? Do embarrassing moments come up? Do we learn something about someone we didn't know before? Do our characters stay 'in character?' Do we find out something important that is intrinsic to the 'who' that they are? Who can't wait to get out of their heels and runs around barefoot? Who's funeral suit doesn't fit that well any more? Which character doesn't 'have' appropriate clothing to wear in the first place and is everyone in black (or what-ever is the color in their culture) or dressed in bright, happy colors? Are there children there and if so, how are they behaving? Who is right in the middle of things and who is off on the side, at the outer edges of the gathering? Is there a huge crowd or just a few people? Are the people focused on what is happening or thinking about missed phone calls, meetings, or what will be happening next week? Are several people meandering around forming strategies on who will take over the family business and wondering how they can be sure it is them and not Uncle So-and-so? Is there a gathering in the church social room, a fancy restaurant or does everyone go back home? Do folks bring tons of food or do the central characters go home to an incredibly empty house? And of course, the whys behind the author's choices.
How does this death change some of the characters? Does it change how they might go forward? Does it have an effect on future plans? Do they act differently now that they are no longer under the deceased's thumb or no longer worrying about letting someone down or feeling free to go off in a new direction? It seems to me that a death in a book needs to serve a purpose or else why should the reader care that they died?
In my case, the character that shall shortly depart was the one who kept track of the entire family, ran the family's business with an iron thumb and had a finger in everything they did. Without her, they don't have that central core, that uniting force and they become fragmented with their varying agendas--which is what I need to make the story work.
Thank goodness for writing!!! In the course of writing this newsletter, I've figured out a major who, what, when and why I'd been struggling with, used the emotions and sadness of the past week to focus my writing in a direction I needed it to go, and feel better!!! Thanks, dear friend, you, even in death, have managed to help, motivate and inspire. Now why, I wonder, should that surprise me?
and, because it fits...
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sarah.g wrote: I loved the poem at the beginning of your NL. But it's so true, and particularly relevant for me as an English student.
Joto-Kai says: It's true. The English language has this as it's greatest vice and virtue: it never failed to steal what it wanted. All the best words in the world are destined to become English.
netrov adds: On the subject of English spelling: May I refer readers to a video clip I placed on Youtube concerning this issue.
Julian Scutts (is an) ex-English teacher in Germany
LinnAnn hanging in there wants to know: I appreciate feedback and suggestions, but if someone wants to change my plot, what are they buying my book for? They are supposed to buy the book, not the author.
Often a big publishing house will 'want to change' some aspect of a book. They do this because they feel that they know what will and will not sell. Your work becomes 'theirs' in a sense. One is expected to go along with their 'suggestions' and since they are paying, the author is expected to go along with their wisdom and experience.
NickiD89 writes in: Great NL! You know what always trips me up? Possession with pronouns. Yours or your's? Ours or our's? etc. I have to look it up every time. *Note to self: look it up today -- and MEMORIZE the dang rule!*
yours, ours, theirs *smile*
alfred booth, wanbli ska comments: An excellent newsletter which should be placed before all writers on a regular basis. Or taped above our writing space so as to remember what's what.
sofie712 adds: Thank you for a wonderful issue. Your editorial, listed articles at the end, and the tips and techniques you spoke about, all combine to create an entire short course. I'm glad I signed on for it. It was excellent.
Thank you both . . . and all for your comments!!!
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