Category Archives: Characters

Ripped from the headlines

Newspapers B&W (5)

“Read your Sunday paper of choice to find material for your novel…

“Assume your character is reading the paper, and an article affects him…
Write about it.
“Now find a place for him to read the paper somewhere in your novel. It could be a paragraph, a sentence, a scene, a chapter— something he reads affects him strongly and we see how and why. And it will all have something to do with the theme of your novel.”
Is Life Like This?
—John Dufresne

Toy stories

ChineToyStoryHelp! I’ve been asked to write a Christmas story. Actually, a script for a church-sponsored women’s Advent event– a set of 5 monologues reflecting the themes of the 5 candles lit during Advent:

  • MalawiToyStorythe Prophecy candle (hope)
  • the Bethlehem candle (preparation)
  • the Shepherd candle (joy)
  • the Angel candle (love)
  • the Christ candle (Jesus)

I know, right?!? How excited are you right now?!?

A bit of background: last year I wrote “Women of the Christmas Story.”  5 women— Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin; Anna, the prophetess in the temple; a shepherd girl; the midwife; and the innkeeper— each monologued about the part they played in Jesus’ birth story. All speculative fiction, if you will, with details from the actual story as well as Bible verses and lines from Christmas carols woven throughout. It was a well-received little “play,” and I’ve been asked to do an encore.

AustraliaToyStoryThis year’s theme is “TOYS.”  I’m thinking of writing each piece from the perspective of an important historical figure, such as Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, Joan of Arc… and having each one speak about a favorite toy from childhood. The final toy (for the Christ candle) would be something relatable to Jesus himself.

ThailandToyStoryEveryone knows the Christmas story, so this is not meant to be a boring retelling of the same old thing. I’ve got pretty much free rein. For example, last year’s Innkeeper was modeled after two Jewish Brooklynites I met while living in NYC. She thought Joseph was a real schlemiel. Her kvetching and “oy vey”-ing stole the show.


Punk has been NO help. He suggested Madonna. Seriously, what kind of toy would she talk about?!? He also threw out Madeleine Albright and Marilyn Monroe. So obviously he’s taking it very seriously. But it’s good to know he has a thing for ladies with “M” names.

Which 5 women would you want to hear speak? What 5 toys would they reminisce about— a doll, a car, Mr. Potato Head? How would you tie in the 5 candle themes?

*all photos from Gabriele Galimberti’s “Toy Stories: Children’s Favorite Toys Around the World”

The Law of Kindness

I missed church today. Couldn’t find my plastic smile in time to go.

LawofKindnessI went to a school once where we had to report each week how many services we attended and where.
Bedside Baptist occasionally made my report. Bread of Heaven or Hungry Souls when I went out to breakfast instead; Our Lady of the Gorge or Lakefront Lutheran when communing with nature felt more appropriate than hypocrisy.

Then I went to a different school, where I met a guy called Mario who started his own church. The Holy Church of Cool. When asked about the tenets of his religion, he said, “Be cool, don’t shit on your neighbor. Stuff like that.” Mario just distilled the essence of religion down to its 180 proof essence.

I watched Mario smoke a lot of pot. Probably his way of achieving that whole “be cool” thing. It’s really the hardest part for us uptight overachieving types. By extension, it’s hard to be kind when you’re not cool.

GothicWeddingI also watched Mario conduct a beautiful, if not supremely weird, marriage ceremony for a couple known on campus as Gothic Girl and Piercings Guy. Having been turned down by an Anglican minister, who took the whole thing to be some sort of joke, they went to Mario and told him they wanted to do life together. He was completely on board.

“God digs monogamy and shit,” he said at the wedding. Too right, He does.

Mario cussed like a sailor, as my grandmother would say. But he had the law of kindness on his tongue. I never heard him run anybody down for anything. Never saw him shit on anybody. He was true to his religion. And he was happy.

I’ve been thinking about that Bible verse. My whole life, I’ve been admonished to be a ‘Proverbs 31’ woman, and reprimanded when I haven’t measured up. To hear them tell it, the lady in that passage got up early every morning, stayed up late every night, running her home and several businesses, buying land, sewing, cooking, making her husband look good while he sat at the city gate on his butt. It always unhinged me a little. Not cool.

But this verse popped into my head last week, and when I finally went to look it up, I couldn’t believe where it was. Proverbs 31, my least favorite chapter in the entire Bible. In all those years, I don’t remember anybody mentioning it, but it’s the essence of the entire chapter– heck, of the entire book. If we’re not kind, what good are we? If we shit on each other, what good is our religion? Kindness should be king. And kind words should be the rule, not the exception.

I’ll never be the woman in that chapter. I’ve tried. It’s not doable. But if I could do this one thing– speak kind words, always– I think I’d have come as close as possible to figuring out what Mario and the greatest philosophers of the world have known for a long time: “My religion is simple. My religion is kindness” (Dalai Lama).


I can’t hear you

“One character (use the characters from your novel if you can) wants to come clean about a secret. The character he’s talking to cant or won’t hear it… Let them talk for several pages about important matters. Here’s the catch. No speech of one character can ever answer or even address the speech that goes before it. The speakers speak at cross-purposes. They have their own mutually exclusive agendas.”
—John Dufresne

This was my favorite exercise of Week 14 in spite of the fact that Dufresne continues to imply I don’t know what my novel is about. “Use the characters from your novel if you can”??? Uncle John, of course I can! I’m beginning to feel you and I are at cross-purposes.

“Uncle John, the novel is going great. I’m half done with it.”
“I sure wish you knew what you wanted to write about, Mame.”
“My characters are really starting to come alive.”
“What you need to do is imagine a character.”
“The setting feels real. The scenes are really taking shape.”
“Now follow that character around, see where he leads you.”
“My character’s got a goal and the action is really escalating.”
“Think about what your character wants and have him go after it.”


Ahhhhh! I keep shouting at your book that I do indeed know what my story is about, and you continue to suggest that I may not. How could anyone possibly get halfway through the process of writing a book and still not know what she’s writing it about?
But getting past the communication breakdown between teacher and student, it’s exercises like this that keep me coming back to Is Life Like This?. There are so many directions this one can take, so many pairs of characters to be matched up. Two unfaithful spouses. Mutually suspicious parent and child. Two politicians, a priest and a layman, a defense attorney and his client, a boss and her employee.
I had way too much fun pitting a tightly wound Christian who wants to kill her husband against a lesbian neighbor who wants to initiate her into a cult of sorts. You know how when you write a scene, you sometimes surprise yourself because you had no idea you were going to say that?
Now I’m a fierce editor and rewriter, so it may all get scrapped later on, but it was a refreshing change of pace to feel inspired, to write something I felt was actually good. I can sometimes be funny, poignant, ironic, poetic, and/or insightful, but sure haven’t felt any of those things in quite a while. This week I feel encouraged. I can do this novel.
And I already know what my next book is about: a novelist who writes a book but goes insane and hunts down the instructor who said she didn’t know what she wanted to write about.

Barbie scarves

I’ve been working on this novel for ten weeks and logged maybe 10,000 useable words. That’s being generous. I’m really trying, but at this rate there is no way I will finish the first draft by June. It’ll be more like December.

Maybe it will be a novella in June.

Barbie scarfWhen my sister and I learned how to knit as kids, we were all like, “we’re gonna knit a huge afghan!” then after a while, “We’re making scarves,” or “Mom, are these big enough to be potholders?”

Eventually we ended up with Barbie scarves. Ever since then, when a project dwindles into nothing, it’s a Barbie scarf.

Every time I think I’m going to have time to write, I get two words in and something comes up. Someone wants something. Somebody needs to get wiped.

I’m not just talking about real life thwarters. My characters all seem to be tangling up the yarn, adding rows, dropping stitches, sending the story in directions I didn’t intend for it to go. I know, I’m supposed to follow the story, not dictate it. But it’s been such slow going– sometimes it takes all day to write a couple hundred words. I don’t want to think I’ve wasted any of this time writing Barbie scarves!

Anyway, the plan for week 10 is to keep plugging away at the plot. Up until now I’d been spending a lot of time with the main character, but the focus is beginning to shift to the others, and two of them in particular are telling me they are not who I thought they were.

I made more 3×5 cards, one for each of them, outlining:

  • Her goal/desires/problem to solve
  • Cross purposes: How does achieving her goal put her at odds with other characters?
  • Obstacles: how can I impede her?
  • What seemingly bad things end up being beneficial?
  • What seemingly good things end up being a curse?
  • What does someone else have/do/get that she thinks she wants?

It’s in working through these goals and problems that the characters’ motives and personalities are becoming clearer. And they are completely different than who I thought they were or should be.

A bit like life, I guess.

Does this happen to everyone? What do you do– follow the new trail, and let your characters tell it their way? Write all the scenes and publish a “choose your own adventure” novel? Or just go back to knitting?