Monday, August 17, 2009

CONTROL and CHAOS

We have a special treat today, the out-of-control, agent of chaos, creator of the incomparable, unsinkable, and outrageously funny Bobbie Faye series.....Toni McGee Causey.

As you'll see, Toni's criminal mind works in ways that the troops have taken to calling: shock and awe.  And so does her character, Bobbie Faye.

Enjoy!
CJ

Do you control your characters or do they control you?

by  Toni McGee Causey

Short answer? Yes.

Both.

Long answer?

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Like writers have a clue.

Creating a character is both exhilarating, like the sense of discovery of a fine treasure buried where no one else thought to look, and it’s also awful and horrific and incestuous, like Faye Dunaway in   Chinatown admitting she is her daughter’s mother… sister…. mother…. sister as Jack Nicholson’s character slaps her. Or maybe it’s more like the Jets and the Sharks in   West Side Story: there be knives and heartbreak and love and hate here.

When asked… [okay, an aside, if you follow that link? I am SORRY about the BANGS THAT ATE MY FACE. I did not realize I was peering through a mop. I’m used to it. Also? I was like, seriously, legally blind as that was prior to my Lasik and that is my story and I’m sticking to it.]… anyway, when asked, I will tell you that  Bobbie Faye just showed up one day and demanded that I write her story. Because she did. It was a bit like having a 2x4 smack me upside the head, the force of her personality was so strong.  About five minutes later, Trevor and Cam showed up, and I knew I had a story. A world.

Now, a lot of people who know me will look at the chaos of Bobbie Faye’s world and then look at my life and go, “DUH. Of course she writes about chaos.” Yes, running a construction business means I have had my fair share of chaos, and doing said business while raising two sons and going back to school (full-time) and writing was a sharp lesson in managing insanity. [I am flattered because people think she is sexy. When she’s not, you know, destroying stuff. Inadvertently.]

At the same time, my life has always been so very different than Bobbie Faye’s that the notion that I’m simply writing what I know kinda cracks me up. I am a grandmother. I have been married a long time, have two sons, one granddaughter, was married when I was 19, and am not a gun expert, in any way, shape, form, or fashion. Bobbie Faye is 28, single, has never had a happy home life, is a force of destruction. She is the one who blows things up. I am the one that everybody looks to when someone else has “blown things up,” because I fix things. [Of course, Bobbie Faye tries to fix things. I would like to think I have a little bit better track record in that area than she does.] [Also? I like denial. Work with me here.]

I tell you all of this because writers sometimes worry too much about the characters they create. They over-think them. I’ve known people to make charts, map out inner goals and outer goals and needs and wants and end up with something that feels more like those cut-out paper dolls.  Remember those? Interchangeable clothing, interchangeable character traits.

No book—no created world, TV, film or book—is solely about the main character. Sure, Bobbie Faye and I both have a passing acquaintance with—oh, let’s call it “eccentricity.” But there are scads of other characters peopling the world of the books, and every single one of them, from the smallest role to the secondary characters, have to ring true.

And the truth of a writer’s characters is both a function of choice and what we’ve been exposed to in our own lives. We’ve been exposed to good guys and bad, people we can trust and people who will betray us without a single backward glance. We know the feeling of loss and the feeling of joy in friendships. Whether we’ve been a parent or just the child of one, we can see flaws, oversights, encouragement. Or maybe cruelty, meanness and spite. If you’ve ever been on a playground as a kid, you’ve seen the latter.

As we’re digging for those characters, we’ll find ourselves making conscious choices: she’s from the south, she has a crazy family, she drives a beat-up car. And unconscious choices that we only understand in retrospect: she feels angry that she’s in charge of her siblings, that they’re grown and won’t fend for themselves, angry that her father never stepped up to claim her, angry that “family” has only meant “abandonment.”

When we’re writing, we’re doing so because we “get” something about people, about situations, that we want to communicate. But just like the fact that we can sometimes surprise ourselves and our loved ones—however well we know them—can surprise us, our characters can twist away from what feels like our conscious control. The scary thing? This can be a function of either knowing the character so insanely well that our gut instinct is telling us something we haven’t consciously figured out… or we don’t know the character well enough and we’re grasping for answers.

The latter, by the way, is what first drafts are for.

So here’s to the subconscious. What Jenny Crusie calls “The Girls in the Basement.” Characters come out of who we are, choices in our lives, in lives around us, what we can observe, learn, intuit, reason, experience, guess. And dumb luck. Never overlook plain, old-fashioned, good dumb luck.

Also, don’t say ‘no’ to a character who is knocking on your door, demanding to be written. They will open worlds for you.

About Toni:
Toni McGee Causey is the author of the critically acclaimed “Bobbie Faye” novels—an action/caper series set in south Louisiana; the series was released this summer beginning with CHARMED AND DANGEROUS, GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE GUNS, and WHEN A MAN LOVES A WEAPON. Toni sold non-fiction both locally and nationally, was a contributor to two anthologies, and recently produced a film titled: LA-308. Learn more about her at http://www.tonimcgeecausey.com

8 comments:

CJ Lyons said...

Toni, Thanks so much for joining us today and starting our week here at Criminal Minds off with a laugh!!!

Jen said...

Hi Toni! So glad to see you hear hangin' out with the Criminal Minds folks. You're posts are always a true joy and make me smile and laugh...what better way to start a Monday?

And to have you here talking about my favorite element of a story...character! Awesome!!

Kelli Stanley said...

Toni, it's such a treat to get to read you over here at CM! Deep, funny, warm, witty and thoughtful, as always. :)

We're so glad Bobbie Faye's "out of the basement" ... and you know, wreaking havoc can be very sexy. ;)

xoxo

Sophie Littlefield said...

Hey, bustin' sh*t up is totally sexy. I think Bobby Faye needs to hang out with Stella...they'd take over the place....

Seriously you give some straight-up solid advice on character here. Hope everyone's taking notes!

Shane Gericke said...

Bobbie Faye and Stella together? Holy shit, hide the silverware and guns. There'd be so much chaos CJ's entire hospital team would have to come running.

Toni, love your blog item. It's so cool when characters start speaking to you, isn't it? When we start speaking back, that's when loved ones start to question our sanity. But we know who we're talking to, right?

Love the bangs ... Bobbie Faye could hide a gun and a six-pack in there. :-)

Shane Gericke said...

P.S. Sophie says sh*t because she has class, and I don't.

Toni McGee Causey said...

LOL -- thanks everyone. (Man, Bobbie faye and Stella... the world just would not know what the hell happened, would it?)

Thanks for letting me blather on this morning--really enjoyed being with such a great group of writers! Y'all are a blast.

Margie Lawson said...

Toni --

Speaking as a psychologist and writer, I agree -- the subconscious rules!

Loved your blog. As always, you nailed the message and delivered it with humor and passion and writing craft power.

I noticed you used at least six rhetorical devices to empower your blog. You are as masterful when writing a blog as you are when writing fiction.

Ah -- More power added by your 'cadence ear' and your subconscious. ;-))