“Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul, lett-pool store…”

arms_crossed_color_final“…How I wonder what you are…”

Figured out the funny-sounding title? No, no, silly writer, I did not take the crazy train to psycho land… well… not in this case – But, I have been reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which is becoming my favorite book. Why, you may ask? Because Vonnegut heavily relies  on his characters to tell the story for him, making his narrator-and his reader-a voyeur to life as it parades onward. This is something I touched upon in my last entry – the reader, a peeping tom who indulges in the tragedy of other lives… fictitious lives, sure, but lives nonetheless. Maybe it hasn’t so much to do with the character being real, but instead with the conflict that arises between what the character thinks or feels versus what s/he does.

I have a conflict myself, ladies and gentlemen, and I’ll let my character, Shirley, explain it for you:


What am I supposed to say?

Exactly. That’s my problem: What is Shirley, my main character, supposed to say. How much should she divulge with the reader? What sort of situations or moments should remain unsaid? When do I, the narrator, actually narrate the story?

It is very simple to let your characters walk around the space you create, let them do what you write, say what you write. But when do we let the characters think on their own, make decisions on their own, and act accordingly? Personally, I don’t want my narrator to describe traits or habits that the character can’t express on his or her own.

For example – there’s a big difference between this:

“Jessie is a perfectionist. Aunt Landry knew that but her friend, Ms. Gable, didn’t. As Jessie spent mere minutes arranging each of her guests napkins and utensils in the right area, Ms. Gable offered her assistance in the ritual. Jessie kindly, but sternly, refused the offer.”

And this:

Aunt Landry sipped her iced tea and glanced, sleepy-eyed, into the Fashion Section of The Sunday Times. Mrs. Gable strained her neck to read over Landry’s shoulder, but relaxed once she felt a sharp pain shoot up her neck. Mrs. Gable glanced over at Jesse. She was still silently folding the napkins into perfect triangles.
Ms. Gale reached for one unfolded, improperly loose napkin from the small pile. “Looks like you need a hand, dear,” Ms. Gale said.
As soon as Jesse saw the napkin in Ms. Gable’s dainty grasp, she snatched the napkin free with one hand, still folding with the other. “No!” Jesse barked. Then, she coughed indiscriminately. She forced a smile. “I have my own technique,” she replied. “But, thank you, Ms. Gable.”

Now, if Jesse’s folding of the napkins had nothing to do with the main conflict of the story, then I wouldn’t have made it so long and descriptive. But, say the napkins Jesse are folding have been laced with poison! Then, I couldn’t let such a pivotal scene go unnoticed. I gave Jesse, Ms. Gale, and Aunt Landry actions, significant ways they can express their personality and motives themselves.

Jesse is no longer just a perfectionist. She has motivation, she has a precise and consistent way of performing her task because it is vital to the conflict at heart!

Of course, this is what building a character is all about – by making a simple list of likes, dislikes, and the type of motivation s/he possesses, it becomes easier for the character to literally tell your story for you.

Funny enough, I didn’t create a character list for Shirley yet, which is becoming necessary. She lives in a strange utopia where her fate is already decided, so she makes a plan to change her destiny. She doesn’t share this plan with anyone, and it ends up resulting in some sad and fantastical event that changes her life forever. Very generic-sounding, I know; but, that’s okay. It’s a simple, light summary that is just the foundation of the story. The more I write, the more the story is told to me. The buildings and landscape become 3-dimensional. The characters are no longer just people, but vessels for the desire we dare not want to admit to… well, at least not all the time.

To conclude, let’s return back to Cat’s Cradle, to a section in the story where the narrator discovers that the founder of the religion he worships attended the same school with muscle builder, Charles Atlas. The narrator talks about Charles’ Atlas’s theory known as “Dynamic Tension.” Atlas believes that one cannot experience improvement in muscle growth and development by merely lifting weights or even rigid exercise. He believes that by “pitting” your muscles together, by creating conflict, you will see results.

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