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In our writing workshops, fiction writers often complain of writer's block. They sit down, ready to create, but they can't think of anything to write. But what is writer's block?
We ask them to explain what they are trying to do when they become "blocked." They usually answer they can't think of a story. When we ask them, what they mean by "a story," they usually say something like: "Oh, you know, characters and situations and what happens."
That's a story all right. If we ask them why they need to know all that before they begin, they say something like, "You have to know the story before you can start - don't you?" Actually, knowing the whole story before you begin would be a formidable challenge for any writer, no matter how experienced. No wonder they sit there and stare at the blank page. No wonder they have "writer's block."
In our workshops we suggest that a fiction writer doesn't have to know the whole story before beginning; in fact, we suggest that it is not necessary to have even the vaguest idea of a story, as long as you have a character in mind.
To "get around" that dreaded getting started moment, we teach a character-based story-starting approach that we have labeled, "Walking the Character." In a nutshell, our story-starting approach is comprised of three steps:
The Walking-the-Character method may not lead to a complete story, but it almost always leads to the development of an interesting character. And then, surprisingly, as the writer "gets to know" that character, stories usually follow.
We recommend "getting to know your character" before deciding on a story. We are referring to a process that begins with an understanding of character motivation. By beginning with the character and then thinking about what motivates that character, our students can better imagine what kind of situation would put that character to the test. Because such a test is often the basis of a character-driven plot, good stories often emerge from it.
Just to clarify our terms, we think of character-driven plots as those in which the reader's attention is focused on the hopes and desires of the character. In plot-driven stories, the reader's attention is focused on what the character does to change events around him/her. Character-driven stories often revolve around what a character learns (or fails to learn).
Compare a story about a woman who is trying to overcome her fear of intimate relationships (character-driven) with a story about a detective who is trying to figure out who killed the butler in the drawing room with the candlestick (plot-driven). Of course, the best stories have some of both, but the difference lies in where the writer is trying to focus the reader's interest.
To better understand how the walking the character method works, let's create a working example.
To begin, to get past that blank page, let's not "think about" a starting place (a left brain process), let's just get something semi-random onto the paper (if possible, using a right brain approach).
The left-brain/right-brain concept is probably too complex to describe in detail here, but, in general, it relates to some early research that found different functional attributes in the two hemispheres of the brain (termed "laterality"). The research found that the left hemisphere was more involved in analytical activities, while the right side was more involved in intuitive or artistic endeavors. As a result, people now often contrast intuitive approaches (using the right side of the brain) with more analytical approaches (using the left side of the brain).
The left-brain approach - trying to logically create an interesting character - seems too daunting to us. So we recommend a more right-brained "discovery" of a character. To begin, we usually suggest opening a book or a newspaper to find a word or two, or maybe a phrase, that might evoke thoughts about people and what motivates them. Any word will do, as long as it is related to something that (even vaguely) has to do with human motivation. The steps that follow tend to develop a character that is that sort of person.
To more clearly demonstrate this, let's try it out by thinking through the entire process. Below, we have tried to accurately reproduce the process of (1) creating a character, (2) putting that character into a situation that tests him/her, and (3) developing a plot based on how that character responds to the test. In the left side of the table below, we have entered the processes we went through while we were developing this example story. The right side of the table contains the first draft of the resulting story.
Looking at the newspaper lying on the desk, I see the word entertainment. That might offer some interesting possibilities. So let's begin with that one word:|
Now, what kind of character does that make you think about? Maybe a character that wants to entertain. What would he think like? Let's go with that, suggesting that he REALLY wants to be an entertainer:
That sounds as if we are in the head of a character who wants, above all, to be an entertainer. It is important to him; it motivates him. Let's use our narrator to describe him that way.
Okay, now we have a character and we know what is important to him. [ It's often a good idea to establish the character's motivation right away.]
Next, let's use our narrator to give him a name, Raymond. Even better, let's give him a nickname. [Thinking about what a character's nickname might be can help you figure out what that character is like.] What does he look like? What would somebody who always wanted to be an entertainer look like? At this point, we recommend not "getting too left brained." In other words, don't spend too much time trying to think about exactly what the character looks like; just think about what "that type" of character might look like in general. Maybe a character who wants to be an entertainer would be someone who stands out from the crowd. Maybe he is someone who has always stood out from the crowd. For this example, let's make him a big guy and call him Big Ray. At this point, it's time to think about character background. Where did he grow up? What was he like in school? Maybe that information won't end up in the story, but it's a good idea to think it through. For this example, let's put it in. Was there a kid in your high school who was always tapping out a rhythm with drumsticks? Let's make Big Ray like that kid.
And what about those kids whose mothers forced them to take music lessons; that could lead to a life in entertainment. A friend of ours, as a child, was forced to take lessons on the accordion (back then, she hated it, but now she enjoys playing for friends). That's it: Let's say Big Ray was forced by his mother to take accordion lessons. Is that his entre into the world of entertainment? The accordion?
Now we have a character and we know some interesting things about him. But how is he going to break into entertainment if all he knows are some drum licks and a few accordion songs? To heighten the drama, let's have him fail at the drumming: will he never find success in the world of entertainment?
But if he turns away from his hopes and dreams to become a drummer, what will he have left? The accordion.
Now we've walked our character into the world of entertainment; but it's about as small time as you can get and still call it the entertainment business. But he has a vague goal of "making it" someday. We decided to have our character preserver, until he can get his big chance.
But where does perseverance get him? According to our accordion-playing friend, he won't get far: she says there just isn't much demand for the accordion, even if you are very good at playing it. So we'd better have some time pass without poor Raymond getting much closer to his goal.
We now have a character who, if not fully drawn in this brief example, is at least somewhat interesting. It's probably time to give him a chance to break through, to put him to the test. [Typically, in this type of character-driven story, the protagonist's driving desire leads to some kind of test that involves that desire]. Often the challenge to the character is drawn out in one or more scenes, wherein the character acts and talks as he interacts with other characters using dialogue and scene descriptions. The reader learns about the plot, about what is happening in the story, by "listening to the dialogue in the story. [We call this the eavesdropping technique: the reader learns about the plot by "eavesdropping on the characters in the story.]
Notice that although we are using a third person narrator, we are limiting the narrative to Raymond's point of view. By showing the world to the reader in the way the main character sees it, we are hoping to enhance the reader's vicarious interest in the character's situation.
But if we are to let the reader "eavesdrop," we will have to create scenes with dialogue. We will need at least one more character. We created Mrs. Munson as a sympathetic, somewhat motherly, character who takes an interest in Raymond and tries to help him along in his quest to become a "real" entertainer. That allows us to create a pivotal scene with Mrs. Munson using dialogue and character description.
Raymond's challenge turns out to be that he has a chance to entertain a crowd that promises to be much larger than the old folks in the rest home. More importantly, they will be his first non-captive audience. Will they like him, and appreciate his talents, or will they ignore him? There will be lots of acts to see; maybe they will just walk on past him. Maybe they will stop, but only to laugh at him. [For a character-driven story, the reader must come to realize that the character can succeed or fail in his quest; and that issue becomes an element of the plot.] To be a real entertainer, Raymond has to find a way to provide the audience with something that entertains them.
We get Mrs. Munson involved by having her offer to make him a new costume. Her presence in the story brings with it the issue of relationship, with questions about friendship, support, and trust. Raymond must trust that she knows what she is doing. Before long, it becomes obvious that he is pinning his hopes of success on her judgement.
We developed the relationship with Mrs. Munson in a scene wherein she mothers him and tries to reassure him. She says she will make him a costume with a theme. Because Mrs. Munson is seen through Raymond's point of view, neither Raymond nor the reader know what that means. Both will have to wait and see.
Will Mrs. Munson's special costume for the occasion help, or hurt, his cause? This adds an additional element of suspense, tied to issues of relationship and trust.
The focus of his hopes and fears eventually comes to be the costume. Will it do the trick? Or will he fail again?
At this point, we use the narrator to move time forward, even as we keep the reader within Raymond's point of view as he thinks about nothing else but the costume and his chances for success.
When Raymond comes back to get his new costume, on Christmas day, we are trying to make it clear that he must trust that she knows better than he does. She believes the new costume will make people pay attention to him. But, through Raymond's point of view, the reader sees that he is not so sure. But it is too late to get another costume. Besides, now that we have established that Raymond is in at least a somewhat caring relationship with her, to reject the costume she has worked so hard on would be to reject her.
In this second scene at Mrs. Munson's mobile home, the relationship between Raymond and the mothering Mrs. Munson continues to evolve. The scene is intended not only to further develop Mrs. Munson's concern for his well being and success, but also to draw out the drama of the costume unveiling.
At the end of the day, when Raymond gets his new costume, the reader sees, through Raymond's point of view, that it is a very green costume. It makes him look like a giant mermaid. We have instilled Raymond with doubts about it, and (hopefully) the reader will share those doubts. Nevertheless, in the name of entertainment, Raymond forges ahead, planning his appearance at the street scene, the situation that will put him to the test. To share his emotions with the reader, we have him worry that he will either be ignored or simply drowned out by the other entertainers - in particular a loud rock band. They are the big act that will draw the crowds; he is nothing but a fat guy in a green suit with an accordion.
Now that we are starting to get an idea of where this story is going, we can bring in some elements to foreshadow where the story is going. For example, the reference to San Francisco, by saying that is where the especially garish material for his costume came from.
For the final scene, we move Raymond to his test situation, the street festival.
Once he arrives, it is time to create his audience. We decided to bring some characters onto the scene who might appreciate his costuming, if not his music. They become his hoped-for attentive audience. We couldn't let Raymond fail after all those years of practice and perseverance: as the scene plays out, we have him perform very well; his new found audience likes his costume, and they like him.
In addition to the gay crowd, we decided to also create a growing, more diverse crowd to show that, in this situation at least, Raymond is appreciated by everyone.
Finally he is an entertainer. Maybe they are laughing at him, but they seem to like him. He had tried to be a clown with his birthday party act, but that audience didn't appreciate him. This audience does. We show Raymond as starting to see himself as a success.
But there's more success waiting. First, we created a TV crew who spots his outlandish costume and videotapes him. He is going to be on TV. We even brought the more-famous rock band into the scene to show they have even heard about his act.
On the way home on the bus, after his big success, we created a few other people who see him for what he is, a big guy in a bright green outfit, riding the bus home. But we portray Raymond as no longer minding that he is being stared at. He has undergone a change. [Remember, this is a character-driven story, so the character must change after his test.] Raymond sees a whole new career ahead.
At this point, we could end the story and have let him fade back into obscurity; characters in this kind of story can either pass or fail their big test. As in this story, there might be some kind of personal success, no matter what the rest of the world thinks. Characters in a character-driven story can learn something and move on in any one of several directions; or they can fail to learn, and thereafter be doomed to endlessly continue hoping and dreaming. We decided to give Raymond a whole new life after his street performance success. It is, for him, a happy ending - sort of. He finds his fame, but it is within a special situation, the gay clubs of San Francisco. It is but a small niche in the entertainment world, but he is satisfied with it.
Above all, entertainment. To entertain.
That was his goal: his purpose was to make it his avocation - since he was a child, since he couldn't remember when. Ah, to be seen. To be noticed. That was the thing.
His name used to be Raymond, but they called him Big Ray, back when he was in school.
In Mister Taylor's third period American history class, he used to play licks on the desk with his drumsticks. For some reason, old Taylor put up with it. Maybe he liked percussion. Whatever his reasons, the old teacher would let Ray go on - for a while. Sometimes he'd say, "If Raymond is finished entertaining us, maybe we can get back to American history." Ray would lend emphasis to the teacher's words with a final drum roll and the class would chuckle. That was his role back then: to entertain them. Word around school was that someday he would be a famous drummer. Like Ringo Starr, maybe. But it was not to be. Instead, it was those forced accordion lessons, started back when he was only ten, that were to be his only hope for fame. Raymond's mother liked the accordion - never missed the Lawrence Welk show on TV. She called Raymond into the room whenever they played the accordion. Lady of Spain. Moonlight in Vermont. Whatever. Raymond put up with it because the accordion teacher, old baldy O'Connor, had a kindly wife who made him pies and cakes and other treats. She liked to bake and Raymond liked to eat. By thirteen, he was approaching two hundred pounds. His mother fretted, but he didn't mind: bigger was better. It got you noticed.
For a while, Raymond played drummer in a kid band. But the other kids watched Ringo on TV and listened to all of the Beatles records and they'd say, "Do it like him. Why can't you do it like that?" Raymond tried. He took lessons. He practiced. He could do most of the drummer things, but sometimes he'd get distracted. Lose the beat.
He eventually decided he was more of a soloist. He realized you can't be a soloist drummer. Back to the accordion. After high school, he started out playing at little kid's birthday parties. He learned three different accordion versions of "Happy Birthday To You." But it wasn't enough for them. They almost never asked him back the next year. They wanted a clown instead. There was a tall skinny clown in town who knew how to twist funny animals out of balloons. That guy started getting all the birthday gigs.
For a while, Raymond tried that approach. He bought some balloons. He practiced. But you can't play the accordion - a two handed instrument - while twisting balloons into funny animal shapes. So he tried wearing a funny costume. He'd landed a day job as an intern at the local TV station and old Mrs. Munson ran the prop room. She was also the costume lady so she made him his first costume, a light blue sort of clown suit with black lapels and a black stripe down the outside of the pant's legs. The kids at the birthday parties didn't pay much attention to that outfit, but their mothers liked it. They asked him who had made him that interesting costume. He lied and said he'd made it himself and they fingered the lapels and marveled at his tiny stitches. They also fed him all the ice cream and cake he wanted. He got bigger. The costume had to be let out. Mrs. Munson didn't mind. She said making him funny costumes was more interesting than anything else she was asked to do. She made him a second costume: a bright yellow job, with horizontal red stripes that made him look wider. As Raymond learned to be a little more clown like, and as he got bigger and wider, he began to get new types of gigs. He got paid to play at the old folk's home and at the senior mobile home parks. Mostly on holidays. They said he cheered everybody up, especially the sick ones. He still got some birthday party jobs, but they were always asking him why he'd forgotten his balloons, so he quit taking that kind of gig.
The years seemed to go by too quickly for Raymond. He continued to work at the TV station and was eventually promoted to assistant station manager, one of three assistant station managers. Both his mother and father died the same year he got promoted. He still played the accordion at parties, but he had long since tired of it. As he got bigger and bigger, Mrs. Munson kept on letting out his bright clown costumes, but they were getting worn and sad looking. He continued to play the rest home circuit, but that was about all. Maybe three gigs a year.
His big breakthrough came on New Year's Eve. The town decided to have a downtown street festival with a parade at midnight. Anybody could be chosen to entertain on the streets, but you had to submit a video tape. You even got paid for it. Not much, but enough - the money coming from a community improvement grant from the Feds. Raymond put on his yellow outfit with the horizontal red stripes and used the studio taping system to do a funny rendition of Lady of Spain - double time.
He got the job. The event manager thought he was hilarious. He was to be the entertainment at the intersection of Third and Pacific. They said there would be a little round stage built for him so people could see him from all sides. Raymond was in heaven. His first big public event. The event manager said to expect maybe twenty thousand passing by during the four hour period of the street festival. And then there was the parade at midnight. Did he want to be in the parade? Could he play the accordion and walk the route at the same time? "Sure," said Raymond. "Why not?"
But, as the day grew closer, Raymond began to worry. He found out that there were going to be nine other entertainers. Seven bands, a marimba player, and an old time banjo player who took requests and had a dancing dog. Well, Raymond could also take requests: he knew twenty-seven songs on the accordion, and he could fake a lot more, if need be. But what about those bands? One of them, a rock band, was only going to be a block away. Would they drown him out? Would people just walk on past, heading for the bands? He realized he had to come up with a whole new act. This was not going to be the birthday party or old folks home crowd; this was the public. What would hold their interest?
He decided he had to go see Mrs. Munson. She had long since retired to a senior mobile home park - one that Raymond had entertained in several times - but she still took in sewing jobs. Raymond knocked on her door. No answer. He knocked again and put his ear against the metal door. Not a sound in there. Suddenly, he was afraid she could have died. She could be dead as a doornail in there and nobody would know. As far as he knew, she had no relatives in town. He might lose his big opportunity just because of bad timing. How could she do this to him? But then he thought he heard a noise inside. It sounded like a whistle. Maybe a teapot. He banged hard on the door and soon it opened. It was Mrs. Munson, dressed in an old green bathrobe.
"Why Raymond. Did you knock?"
"Yes, I knocked and knocked," said Raymond. "I was worried about you."
"Well, that's nice of you, Raymond. I'm sorry I didn't hear you. I was just making myself a cup of tea. Would you like some."
"No. No thanks, Mrs. Munson. I need your help. Right away."
"Now don't fret, Raymond. You always fret so. Come in and sit down. I'll make you a nice cup of tea."
She showed him to her tiny living room that had way too much furniture in it. As Raymond waited, perched on the edge of the satin-covered sofa, he looked around at the many chairs and tables and lamps and pictures and knick knacks. It looked like she couldn't stand to get rid of anything. Maybe the stuff all had memories. Or maybe her eyesight was going. Maybe she couldn't even see the mess. He hoped she could still see well enough to do good sewing.
When she came back with the tea, she also brought a plate of frosted cookies. "I was thinking about you just the other day, Raymond. When I made these cookies." She placed the plate on the cluttered little table in front of him and he nervously ate one. He'd forgotten how good they were.
"Now, what's the trouble?" she said. You don't seem to have put on too much more weight. Doctor got you on a diet?"
"No, no, Mrs. Munson. It's my costumes. They're all worn out. And besides, they just won't do. I've got an important new gig. New Year's Eve."
"New year's Eve is it? Oh yes, I suppose that is coming up again isn't it. A big party?"
"Bigger than that. They picked me to play downtown. The street festival. I've got to get a better costume. I've got to think of something."
"Now there you go fretting again, Raymond. "Just have a few more cookies and calm down. Tell me all about it."
So he ate cookies and told her about the situation, about the thousands of people that would pass by, the little round stage on the corner, the loud bands just down the street.
She listened carefully, never interrupting. Then she thought about it.
"So you need a new costume. For this special event."
Raymond ate another cookie and worried that she was getting too senile to understand what he needed. "I need a better costume, he said, emphasizing the word "better." "And I need something more. I don't know what. Something that will get their attention." He ate another cookie. "A new gimmick," he said forcefully. "Something that will make those people stop and notice me."
Mrs. Munson nodded, thinking. Finally, she said, "I think I have it, Raymond. You need a theme."
"A theme?" "That's right. Something that people can connect with."
"Right. Now here's my idea," she said. She sat forward and poked one finger into the palm of her other hand. "Let's see if we can link color and theme. See this bathrobe?" She pulled at the sleeve of her old green bathrobe.
"A bathrobe? I should wear a bathrobe?" Raymond was beginning to think maybe he should just go to a professional costume maker. Spend the money. Whatever it took.
"No, silly. Not a bathrobe. Pay attention. I'm speaking of the color. Green. Why do I like green things?"
"Because it reminds me of the sea. Once, when I was younger, I used my vacation time to go on an ocean cruise down to Mexico. They flew us down to Los Angeles and we went on a big ship. Down along the coast, all the way down to the tip of Baja. It was the first time I'd ever been on a boat. Here we live only a little ways from the Pacific ocean and I'd never been on a boat. Can you believe that? Down there in Baja, the ocean was green. The most beautiful green I'd ever seen."
"So I should have a green costume?"
"Right. And not only green, but something that reminds people of the ocean, the fishes, the seaside."
"That's it. Then they will stop and look at you and listen to your nice accordion music. I'm sure of it."
"Well, I don't know," said Raymond. He wasn't sure what she was up to. He'd done pretty well with the bright clown costumes. This idea of some new kind of theme was taking a big chance.
"Just trust me, Raymond. Give me, let's see, a hundred dollars, for the material. I'll see what I can come up with."
"It's only a few weeks away, Mrs. Munson. I'm desperate."
"Not to worry, Raymond. I'll make you something nice. You'll like it fine. Come back, uh, let's say on Christmas day. In the afternoon. For a fitting. Then I'll have it ready for your big New Year's . . . . gig? Is that what you call it?"
"Right. A gig," said Raymond nervously. "Christmas day?"
"Unless you have something else planned for that day?"
"No, no. That'll be fine, I guess."
"Good," she said, standing up. "Now you just run along and don't worry about a thing. I'll make you the best costume you ever saw."
Raymond wasn't sure. But what else could he do? He headed for the door.
"Here, here, take along a few of these nice cookies."
He turned back to see that she was holding the plate out toward him. Distracted, he took a handful of cookies and put them in his pocket.
She patted him on the back as he went out the door. "Don't you worry about a thing," she said. "It'll be nice. You'll see."
But he did worry. He worried about it day and night. He was distracted and irritable at work. He couldn't sleep at night. As the date came closer, he decided to have his old clown costumes cleaned, just in case.
On Christmas day, he got up and ate some cereal while he watched a Christmas parade on TV. The parade was in New York City and it was windy. They were having trouble controlling some of the big overhead balloons that were in the shapes of cartoon animals. It reminded Raymond of when he'd tried to learn how to twist funny looking animals out of balloons. Maybe he should have stuck to that. Nobody liked the accordion anyhow.
He tried to watch a football game on TV until it was time to go for his costume fitting, but he couldn't focus on it. Finally, he decided he'd better go get it over with. He headed for Mrs. Munson's place and on the way a light rain started. Which worried him even more. What if it rained on New Year's Eve? Maybe nobody would even show up.
This time, when he knocked on Mrs. Munson's door, she answered right away. And she didn't have on her old green bathroom, but was wearing a nice green dress. Made out of some kind of shiny material, like satin. He wondered if she'd made it herself.
"Come right in Raymond," she said. "How nice to see you."
"Nice to see you too," mumbled Raymond. "Is it ready?"
"Of course it's ready," she said brightly. "But there's plenty of time for that. Have you eaten?"
"Uh, I had some cereal. This morning."
"Cereal?" she said, smiling. "That's no meal for Christmas day. Come into the dining room. I made us something."
She led him into the tiny room she called the dining room. It was actually just part of her little kitchen, but she had a small table in there and it was set with fine plates and wine glasses and dark green cloth napkins. "Sit down, Raymond. Sit right here." She pulled a chair out for him. "Would you like some wine? I went to Trader Joe's."
She poured him some red wine and hurried off to the kitchen. Soon she brought back a platter with a baked ham. Another trip to the kitchen and she was back with mashed potatoes. Then it was fresh baked rolls, and even green Jell-O salad with bananas and nuts in it. Raymond hadn't had a feast like that in many years and while they ate he almost forgot about why he was there. Mrs. Munson chatted happily throughout the meal, constantly refilling Raymond's plate, even if he protested. By the time they adjourned to the living room, he was so full he could hardly move. He flopped his huge bulk down on the sofa and this time, when she brought the plate of cookies, he had to wave her off.
"Oh well," she said. "I'll put them in a Tupperware container and you can take them home with you." She stared at him for a few moments before saying, "Would you like to watch TV? I saw that there was supposed to be a football game on."
He shook his head, but she tuned it on anyhow. A team in blue and white uniforms was playing against somebody in red and gold. He tried to concentrate but soon dozed off.
When he woke up, she was sitting across the room, knitting. He stared at the TV. Now it was some teams in black uniforms versus the white uniforms. The white uniforms were getting all muddy. Raymond looked back toward Mrs. Munson and noticed something very, very green and sparkly draped over the chair next to her. "Is that it?" he asked, sitting up.
She looked up from her knitting and smiled. "Oh, you're awake. Did you have a nice rest?"
"Uh, yes. I haven't been sleeping very well. Is that my costume?"
"You bet it is," she said happily. "And wait until you see it." She jumped up and held the costume up in front of herself.
Raymond was stunned. It seemed to be made of shiny overlapping little green disks, thousands of them. It looked like the scales of a bright very, very green fish. It looked wet. He got up and went over to touch it. Each of the little green disks was almost florescent, even in the dim light of the room. When the costume moved, all the little disks moved. It shimmered. What would it look like in sunlight? It would be blinding. He looked up at her to find her smiling proudly. What could he say to her? How could he, how could anybody, wear such a thing?
"Well, what do you think?" she said. "Doesn't it remind you of the sea? Of the fishes?"
"Fishes," he mumbled.
"Well, actually it's supposed to be more like a mermaid," she said. "I had a heck of a time finding enough of these special green sequins. Had to order them from up in San Francisco."
"San Francisco," he muttered, fingering it. There was some kind of silky green cloth under all those sequins. Like a body suit. Would it be too hot? If he ever decided to actually wear the thing, that is.
"Well, come on. Let's try it on. I had to guess at your size. You've gotten a lot bigger since I made your last costume, but that's why we are doing the fitting today, isn't it?" She was still smiling, obviously proud of her handiwork.
She handed the costume to Raymond. It was not very heavy. It just looked heavy. Should he actually try the thing on? Maybe it wouldn't be as absurd as it looked. He held it up. Then he turned it around and looked at the back. Shiny green sequins, front and back. A tight collar. Long narrow arms. It looked like one of those little outfits the doll-like ice skater girls wore, but a hundred sizes larger. What the hell, he thought. I can't refuse to even try it on. Not after she made me such a nice Christmas dinner. "Uh, where shall I change?" he said.
"Are you shy?" she laughed. "You must have underwear on don't you. You can't be shy in front of your costume maker."
Raymond shrugged and began to remove his clothes, staring all the time at the very greenness of the outfit. He put one foot into it and found that it was tight, very tight.
"It's all made of a nylon material," she said. "Elastic. It'll stretch to fit you."
She helped him struggle into it and zipped up the back. Then she led him to her full length mirror. It wasn't until he saw himself in the mirror that he realized why she called it a mermaid outfit. It was flared out at the bottom, so close to the ground that it looked like he had a wide fin, instead of feet. He would look like a walking four hundred pound mermaid. He turned to look at her, his mouth open.
"You said you wanted to get their attention, didn't you?" she said.
"Yes, but . . . . "
"That costume will do it," she said. "I guarantee it."
In the end, they decided that the costume was about the right side. The material was so stretchy it fit his body like a glove. For better or worse, it showed off every single one of his curves and lumps of fat. She was able to finish sewing it up right then and there. He took it off and she put it in a bag for him, along with the cookies.
As he left, she patted him on the back and he turned to thank her. But, secretly, he still wasn't sure he could be seen in public in such a thing. She was standing at her door, smiling, as he left the trailer park.
As he walked home in the drizzle, he thought about his career with the accordion. He had tried to entertain with music, but they wanted a clown. Was the accordion just a clown instrument? If he appeared on New Year's Eve in a green mermaid costume, playing his accordion, would they listen? Or would they just look at him and laugh? Was he still to be just another clown act? Or did it matter? At least, wearing that outfit, they probably really would remember him. No doubt about that. How could they not remember a big fat guy in a mermaid outfit. Maybe, if you were a real entertainer, that was enough. To be noticed. To be remembered.
New year's Eve turned out to be a nice evening. A little cool for California, but not bad at all. Raymond got off the bus, his trenchcoat hiding most of his outlandish costume. He walked toward his designated corner, noticing the many people who were already gathering. The event manager was going to be pleased. There might be even more than the expected twenty thousand. The event had not even started, officially, and hundreds, maybe thousands, were already gathering. They were idly walking up and down the streets, looking into the stores. Almost all of the stores were staying open late that night. Police on horseback kept an eye on everyone.
As he headed down Pacific Avenue, Raymond saw that the bands were already setting up. An amplifier squealed with feedback. They were going to be loud. Would they drown him out? He didn't even have a microphone. Just him and his accordion. And his mermaid costume.
When he got to his corner, the little round stage was there, just as they had promised. It was only about four feet high, but it would get him up above the crowd so they could see him. If there was going to be a crowd, that is. He took off his coat and unpacked his accordion. He was glad he had decided to paint his accordion green. Standing in front of his mirror at home, wearing that amazing green outfit, the dull off-white color of the instrument made it look like an antique. In truth it was getting old. But now, in its snazzy new coat of pearlescent green, it looked much more appropriate for . . . an entertainer.
As he stood up and turned around, a young man in tight pink pants noticed him and shrieked. "Look, oh look," he screamed in a high pitched voice. He pointed at Raymond. "My God, it's a giant mermaid."
His screams attracted his friends who were nearby, pointing at some fancy hats in a shop window. They came running. "Look everyone. It's a mermaid man," said the young guy in the pink pants. They all stared and tittered.
It was obvious they were gay. Probably come down from San Francisco for the festivities. Would everyone think he was gay? Was that to be his audience?
"Please mister mermaid man, play us a song," said the young man.
Pleeeaze," chimed in the others.
Why not? thought Raymond. The event wasn't supposed to start for another twenty five minutes, but he was there and ready to go wasn't he. He didn't need to set up any equipment. He put on his accordion and struggled up onto the stage. For a minute, he just stood up there, looking down at them. They were waiting. They wanted to hear him play. His accordion still smelled of the fresh enamel paint. He decided to start with a ballad, something sweet and sad. He launched into "Beautiful Dreamer," taking it slow and melancholy. As he played, more people arrived. And then more. As he played on, hundreds more came, gathering all around, watching him, only him. And they were all listening quietly. Sure, they were staring at his mermaid outfit, and whispering behind their hands, but they were listening. It was as if the absurd costume created some kind of contrast with the sweet music. He'd never played for so many people. But he didn't miss a note: all those years, all those birthday parties, and the afternoon concerts at the old folks home, had prepared him. When he finished, they all burst into applause. They were smiling and cheering. And not just the gays, who probably just appreciated the costume; it was everyone. They liked him. They liked his music. He played on and on. The individuals in the crowd constantly changed, but the size of the crowd never lessened. They were appreciative and attentive. His fingers were getting sore but he played on. He played every one of his twenty-seven songs and then he started over at the beginning again. He hardly paused between songs. When midnight finally came, he did his big finale, his double time version of "Lady of Spain." The crowd broke into spontaneous applause, right in the middle of the song.
As he headed for the start of the parade, the last event of the evening, many people were noticing him and pointing him out to their friends. The parade had hardly started when a TV crew from Sacramento pulled him out of the line and had him play two songs for the camera. "It'll be on the six o'clock news tomorrow," they said. After all those years of working at the TV station, he was going to be on TV for the first time. Their bright camera lights attracted even more people and soon he had another spontaneous concert going, with hundreds encircling him.
He played a few more songs before breaking free and rejoining the parade. When the parade ended, he hurried back to get his accordion case and his trench coat. One of the bands had promised to keep an eye on his stuff while he was in the parade. They were still packing up their truck, but one of them noticed him. "Hey, it's the mermaid man," he said, and he waved in a friendly way. "We heard about you, dude. Sorry we couldn't get down to your corner to hear you."
As Raymond walked away proudly, he didn't even bother to put on his trenchcoat. Let them see him. He was the mermaid man, the accordionist. As he rode the bus home that night, the other passengers stared at him suspiciously. But he didn't mind. He was an entertainer. He would have to get used to people staring. He was sure the evening would mark a whole new beginning of his career.
And he was right. As it turned out, the young fellow in the pink pants knew a guy who owned a very popular gay club in San Francisco. They tracked him down and offered him a weekly salary that was almost as much as he was making at the TV station. Raymond packed his things and left town without a moment's hesitation.
He wrote to Mrs. Munson often and before she died she made him two new costumes. The patrons of the San Francisco club especially liked his scarlet and black Lady of Spain outfit that came with a wonderfully bright glitter mask and a towering red hat topped with bright red feathers. Wearing that costume, his double time version of "Lady" never failed to get them up and cheering. Some of the regulars even knew the words and would try to sing along. They all came dressed in their own Lady of Spain outfits. It became a nightly ritual to see if they could yell out all of the words fast enough to keep up with him. Eventually the huge mermaid man and the nightly "Lady of Spain" singing contest even found it's way into the official San Francisco visitor's guide, right there on the page next to his smiling picture, wearing that trusty old green mermaid costume.
As illustrated in the above example, a character-driven story can grow out of a single word: entertainment. When we begin to speculate about what kind of character would have a goal related to that key word or phrase, we begin the process of creating the character. When we begin to think about what would motivate a character like that, we are beginning to develop the character. By focusing on his motivation, we are giving him depth. As the readers learn more about the character, about his situation, about his hopes and fears, they begin to care about what happens to him. The story came out of our speculation about what that kind of character would do, what would be important to him. In a way, the story "writes itself" because once we begin to understand our character, there are only so many test situations we can put him into.
To summarize, the Walking the Character Method has six main steps. They are:
We hope this example motivates other writers to try this story-starting method. The next time, you get "writer's block," stop trying to think up a story and try thinking up a character, focusing on that character's driving motivation. It may not always lead to a complete story, but it almost always leads to some interesting story ideas.
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