I’ve known Carole since 1986. By now she has several years of development behind her. Going through my notes recently I found her in tears a lot, seeking sympathy, being misunderstood or not heard. Geez, I thought, what a whiner. Who’d want to read about her? I could hardly stand to be around her myself for the months, years it takes to write a novel. Fortunately, through the accumulation of notes, she has grown and developed – through situations that will never make it into the novel – as surely as if she had lived them. She is older now, with the concerns and problems of a more mature woman. I did not create her this way – it is as if in those years in the file cabinet, while I was doing other things, she grew up on her own.
As I guide Carole through each scenario, I come to know her better, which means I can show more of her. That doesn’t mean I know everything about her. She surprises me sometimes. I can tweak her personality, fine tune her actions, but I certainly don’t know her well enough to control her. She is what she is.
Youngest of three siblings, Carole has a good relationship with her brother, Ben. They were a pair often joined in opposition to their eldest sister Melissa, and remain close. She is a disappointment to her mother, Lila, who believed her daughter to be a musical prodigy and still thinks Carole turned her back on a promising career as – maybe a pianist; I’m not sure yet. Maybe the instrument she plays will never matter. In my head, just now, it came to me that Lila has taken to referring to Diana Krall, as if to remind Carole of what she might have become. Carole was closer to her father than her siblings were – she was more like him in nature, and though she did not share his passion for clocks and cameras she pretended an interest as a way of being close to him. Last of the main characters is cousin Nomi with whom Carole has a rocky relationship. The basis of Nomi’s difficult, even toxic, personality came as another shock to me recently. It seems Nomi was molested. Ssh. Carole doesn’t know anything about this yet.
As you can see, Carole has an extensive back story with a different relationship with each of her family members. (More on back story later.)
The older sister, Melissa, was at odds with Carole from the moment she was born. As a teenager she maintained the image of the “perfect” child thanks to little sister Carole who was always covering for her. She is still maintaining an image, married to a doctor, living the “perfect” life of a stay-at-home mom of four little boys. Fulfilling Lila’s expectations of the perfect daughter. Except for the alcohol.
Ben, the middle child, developed more slowly as a character. He and Carole were always close. But it was a long time before I realized he was gay. And out of that came one of the key plot points.
Lila their mother, is the wife of a famous photojournalist. She is currently writing a memoir which describes a life that barely resembles what her children remember. Because what do children ever know of their parents’ personal hopes and dreams and disappointments?
A writer has to understand every one of her characters. Sometimes it is the action of a secondary character that creates problems for the main protagonist. If the situation is to be believable, his motives must be believable as well. So he must be just as well thought out as other characters.
Such is Joel, Carole’s soon-to-be ex-husband. He figures only in the first chapter or two, but is an important character in that something in their relationship had to fulfil two requirements: 1) It had to warrant Carole’s actions, and 2) it had to precipitate divorce in what had seemed a solid marriage. I have some familiarity with the Jehovah’s Witnesses through a close friend. The little I’ve ever seen about them – in movies, never in a book – was both misinformed and cliche. And I’ve always wanted to factor some of the truth about their beliefs and lifestyle into my fiction. Nothing distasteful (why is it everyone always wants to make fun without even trying to understand?), but simply to put an unusual twist on an already shocking reason for divorce. I let a number of possibilities simmer on the back burner until I decided it would have to do with something between Joel and Ben. Perhaps Joel’s inability to accept Carole’s continued closeness with her gay brother? But I wasn’t happy with this either. So I left it alone, worked around it – not real writing at this point, only notes. Then just last year, when I got to work in earnest, I turned out the lights one night – I wasn’t thinking about the novel at all – and the solution popped up from – well, who knows where these things come from. What I found scribbled on my notepad in the morning not only made sense in the clear light of day, but solidified a crucial element of the plot and helped clarify these two male characters.
The whole exercise of Joel’s back story would have been easy to avoid. I could have settled for a typical divorce story. It is a small point, and would not have affected the main plot. But if I had let it go, if I hadn’t stuck with Joel, working to give him more depth even though we would hardly see him, I wouldn’t have come up with something that is going to be (I hope) unique. Maybe even daring.
Dalton is a secondary character, even though he is dead before we meet him. That choice was very personal. He was to have been alive, but after my dad passed away there were things I needed to write about – part of the grieving process, I guess. But with just a little reworking of the original idea, Dalton does come to life in family memories.
And then there is Nomi. But this character deserves a page all her own.