Friday, May 27, 2022

Make Them All Unforgettable Characters, by Josh Stallings

Q: How much air time do you give to secondary characters? Have any threatened to take over a book?

A: I give them as much time as they need to be fully there. A paragraph, a chapter, I don’t have a formula. The tension between narrative drive and character exploration comes down to personal taste. I can feel when editing when I come to a section that’s off the main story if I want to blow past it, it means it needs work, either to cut it down or make it sing. 

I’m dancing around the question because though I understand the term “secondary characters” I don’t think about any characters as secondary. Every one of us believes we are the hero of the story. I realize this phrase is both vague and over used, so I’ll dig a bit deeper into my process. Because I mostly write from beginning to end not knowing where the tangled twisting path leads, I am forced to treat every character that stumbles onto the stage as if they might be a key player, and they might. One of my best friends since we were glittery rock teenagers is Tad Williams. He writes these MASSIVE epic fantasy series, because of the size and scope he peoples them with a huge cast, some will be spear holders and others may step forward in book three and save the day. Sitting at the starting line he can’t see seven years of writing down the line who will be what, they all must be worthy of taking the lead.

Another way of thinking about this is, the best stories make me feel like they are showing me a small portion of a real world, one that exists beyond the page. Everyone we meet is coming from somewhere and going to someplace else.

Great paintings work this way for me. I was a weird kid, I loved landscape painting. My father was an artist, and my mother was a teacher who believed art was an integral part of any education, so I spent a lot of time in museums. I was drawn to work where I would day dream about what was around the next corner on a country road, behind a tree in the forest.

Two early lessons in theater school were, “Know where your character was before they walk on stage.” And “Write your character’s biography.” Even if you only have a one line walk on, doesn’t matter. The audience will never see this work but if you do it, they’ll feel the truth. Same thing for writing. I have to know my characters intimately, I often discover who they are as I’m writing. Once I really know them, I go back and build a document with only their scenes, I read and edit them to be sure they track with who I know they are now. 

Part of the joy in writing TRICKY was getting to show the intellectually disabled community as individuals. I wanted the group home where Cisco lives to be peopled with three dimensional characters. They all started out based on people I’ve known, or observed. But once I start writing they take on lives of their own. 

Meet Pris, with wild unkempt long hair and smeared on make-up. She claims the staff cut her hands, “Staff say I’m too pretty to live. Like a butterfly on fire.” Only when she shows her palms to the detective there are no signs of any damage.

And Donald, in his Star Wars wheelchair and Rebel X-Wing tee shirt, “June, June, June.” He calls to the house manager.

“Donald, what is it?”

“June, June, June.”

“What?” June smiled at Donald.

“Um I forgot. God damn it!”

“Language, Donald.”

“Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

And Lilly, a wonderful innocent who we discover has feelings for Cisco as she explains to Detective Madsen, “I think he’s beautiful.” 

“Did David and Cisco get along?”

“Everyone likes Cisco. Do you like him?”

“I just met him today.”

“That’s all it takes. Maybe you think too much.” She scrunched up her eyes, mimicking over concentration. “It is okay to trust.”

Combined they illustrate that being intellectually disabled doesn’t preclude one from being delusional, or paranoid, or use profanity and be really into Star Wars, or have crushes and fall in love. But none of them are stand-ins for an idea, they are characters I’ve gotten to know well enough that I could write a book about any of them, they just happened to show up in Cisco’s book.

Now as for characters threatening to take over a book? All the time. Early on in TRICKY I had wanted to write much more about Lilly with Cisco. I’m a romantic. But what I want and what the novel needs are often very different. I feel like that tension helps make a better book. I want Cisco and Lilly to have a love story, hopefully so do readers, the tension lies in will it won't it happen? If it doesn’t happen in the novel, it still remains as a possibility and that creates a world beyond the book in the reader’s mind.

YOUNG AMERICANS is a disco glitter rock heist novel told through the eyes of the intelligent but na├»ve Jacob Stern, and his safe cracking sister Sam. Set in 1976 their crew is full of flamboyantly wonderful characters, but it was Valentina Creamarosa who stole my heart and could have walked away with the whole damn book if I’d let her.


Valentina spun through life trailing glitter and feathers molting from her thrift store boa. Six foot two and muscular, she vibed Tina Turner on steroids. 

A trans-gender badass and the patron saint of Fabulousness. She was an expert in firearms and lip liner. Vulnerable, loyal, damaged and deadly. 

“Settle down you dazzling bitches, class is in session.” Valentina unzipped an olive canvas duffle bag that was sitting on the coffee table in the Creekside Apartment living room. It was full of guns.

“Oh, fuck me.” Terry turned a lighter shade of pale.

“You OK, Terr-Terr, this shit getting a little too real?” Valentina tossed a snub-nosed .38 to Terry. He recoiled and the revolver bounced off his chest, landing on his lap. “Pick it up, Ms. Cutie.” Terry looked scared. “Pick. It. Up. Bitch.”

“Leave him alone, Val,” Jacob said, reaching for the gun.

“Stop. Terr-Terr either pulls his weight or he walks.”

“Fine, fine, I’m cool.” Terry picked up the snub-nose.

“I want the nickel-plated Smith & Wesson,” Candy said. “I have a silver snakeskin belt that will go perfectly with it.”

“Done, girl. Style points are always appreciated. We may be robbing this joint, but there is no excuse for looking tacky.”

Valentina is the character I’ve gotten the most requests to write a book about. And I get it, I love her, who wouldn’t? A local coffee joint owner loves her so much whenever I pick up a latte instead of my name it says, “For Valentina.” 

I guess that’s the point of this job, to become invisible and write characters people can’t forget.  


Susan C Shea said...

I think I downloaded Young Americans but will have to poke around in my badly organized kindle for it. Looks like I missed something wonderful!

I'm almost ready to start the month long revision of my new book and you justc gave me precisely what I need as a character-strenthening reminder: "Know where your character was before they walk on stage.” So, thanks.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

"Know where your character was before they walk on stage" — I like that. It just says it all.

Josh Stallings said...

Susan and Dietrich, theater school taught me a lot about how characters work, it also taught me I was a lousy actor. ;)