Monday, August 17, 2009
CONTROL and CHAOS
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.
Do you control your characters or do they control you?
by Toni McGee Causey
Short answer? Yes.
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.]
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.
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.
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