I opened that hideous box last Monday, the one containing my perfect manuscript now covered with Fogel’s scrawls. There’s a lot of work to do on my novel, no doubt, but the comments that concern me the most are the ones I got by e-mail before I received the box.
One of Fogel’s main complaints is that I don’t have a clear picture in my own head of my characters.
What! I’ve written and re-written this novel more than ten times. These characters are like very close friends. I thought I had a clear picture of them in my head, thank you very much.
But when I calmed down and thought about it, I had each character in a specific box of time and place.
So I started thinking about my real friends in real life. I know where they went to high school. I know where their parents dragged them to church each Sunday (and which religion) until adulthood. I know which ones still go to church. I can recall career successes and failures, drunken nights on the town or weekends camping.
Life’s big and stuff happens. I think of my dad today because it’s Remembrance Day, a paratrooper at too young an age, scarred for the rest of his life not just by the war but also because he lost his mom to TB near Christmas of 1945–before he even had a chance for that well-earned moment of peace, to feel safe back home. What if I didn’t know that about him? Would I describe him just as a old man, recently deceased? There’s so much more there.
As for my friends, I know what they had hoped to become and how that turned out for them. I know whom they slept with and whether it was a good idea. Sure, I don’t know these intimate details for everyone I’ve met. I’m just talking about close friends, because I’d better know my characters at least that well.
So I began asking questions and had to spend two days answering them, and it took a lot of research. I not only had to fill out biographies for them, but their parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters. Who got along in the family and who hated each others’ guts with the intensity that only sibling rivalry can inspire? Who was a disappointment to their father/mother/son/daughter? What caused friction in the family? Who went to war and who dodged the draft? Who refuses to go to mass at Christmas despite his mother’s pleas? Who got a good job and who had the bad habit?
You get the idea. I need to know what they smell like after a hot day of work. I need their biographies from birth to death, even beyond the time frame of my novel.
So damn if Fogel isn’t right again, because as I fill in these details, many of which will never appear in the novel, my characters, their motivations, their likes and dislikes become clearer with each new tidbit of juicy gossip.
Many of you writers already knew this. I thought I did.
But now I’m trying to think outside that box.