by Jean Foster Akin
I’m desperate to find that perfect phrase to be uttered by an important character at a pivotal moment in what is now just a manuscript yearning to be a published novel. But my skin tingles, I clench my jaw, uncharitable words begin to rise from my throat as neighborhood kids go from intermittent whining to all-out, full-throated screeching. I grit my teeth against the mental and creative intrusion, consider slapping the cover of my laptop right through the top of my desk.
Instead, I close my eyes, I begin breathing deeply, listening to what they’re fighting about, the frequency and intensity of their voices. At some point I forget my annoyance. I am now a biologist attempting to locate the nucleus of a cell. The high-pitched grousing of little people excoriating each other within their pack turns to plaintive wails directed at a Higher Power.
I hear a screen door creak and then slam as that Higher Power emerges from where she was washing dishes at her kitchen sink. She is bone-weary with arbitrating, and she clutches her sodden dish cloth in a resentful claw that has formerly been (and will be again) a soothing motherly hand.
Yes, I can see her in my mind’s eye, and I drop the cacophonous drama into my novel at the pivotal moment, and pour gasoline on my character’s fire in order to rev up the tension.
Or, I hold on to the cacophonous drama as an ingredient of tension for another story in the future.
The drunk Irish uncle troubling other adults as he sings tavern songs at a child’s birthday party is a perfect character. He’s a ready-made character that you can use to drift in and out of a story, to show up once in a bar scene, or to crash a funeral. He can be used as comic relief, or he can change the entire course of the protagonist’s life by getting behind the wheel of a car, or by accidentally starting a fire with a cigarette dropped from shaky fingers while falling asleep in the protagonist’s spare bed. No tweaking needed to make him everything he needs to be.
He is right there under your nose.
The unapproachable woman with the bulldog who passes you each and every day on the street; the fussy accountant who hops on the bus with you in the morning; the twitchy mailman who skitters away from the house every afternoon, casting terrified looks over his shoulder, even though your dog is a miniature poodle and is always barking from behind your fence; the brassy waitress at your favorite diner who crackles her gum and calls you “doll”. These people can play big parts or small parts in your stories. You can develop them into main characters and build your story around them, or you can drop them into a story in order to people an office or an apartment complex. It’s up to you how you use them.
Yes, change the names, if you know them, and don’t paint a picture of a family member or co-worker so exactly that everyone in your neighborhood figures out easily who the character really is in your life. Avoid relationship problems or court costs by not allowing your characters to be recognizable to their true-life counterparts—especially if you’ve decided to cast those people as your stories’ thieves, unfaithful husbands, or murderers.
But use them. They’re right there, under your nose, so be careful about obvious identifiers, but don’t be shy.
A writer can recycle Life, and she should.
[drawings copyright free]
[Photo, scene from On the Waterfront, 1955]