Last year, I went to a writing conference in Big Sur, toting with me the draft of my novel Punk Boy Mysterious. I was stuck. I was hoping to get unstuck.
It was the story of a middle-class girl, Randi, from a middle-class household, who meets and befriends a group of homeless teenagers. I was at the point in the story where Randi had to choose between her safe, cushy life at home or the dangerous and marginally illegal world of the disenfranchised. Of course, being a teenager, she goes for the danger (and the love interest). She’d already chosen; that wasn’t the problem.
She was going to be involved in a shooting. It was going to be bad. I couldn’t write it.
When I went to the conference, which was basically a nitty-gritty workshop designed to make you stare down your writing demons, my colleagues listened to my explanations of why I was stuck. “I haven’t done enough research,” I said. (I’d interviewed a dozen or so homeless teens, read three doctoral dissertations on the subject, and collected anecdotal evidence for years.) They listened, and then one said, “I just think you don’t want Randi to get hurt.”
Wow. That hit me like a proverbial ton of bricks. I didn’t want her to get hurt. I had invested all this time and energy into her, and now when I was at the point in the story where she essentially had to face up to the truth of her choices, I had chickened out like an over-protective mommy.
After that conference, I had a breakthrough and was able to shepherd Randi through the onslaught of tears and trouble, put her in harm’s way, and help her find a way through it. I thought of this today because I’m in the middle of another novel, Out, and I’m at the same crossroads. My main character, Chris, is going to do something dangerous and life-changing. I know he’s going to do it, and he knows he’s going to do it, but we both have the same reaction: last night’s writing session culminated in Chris asking the driver of the car he’s in to pull over so he could puke his guts out in the rain.
It wasn’t raining here in San Diego, and I wasn’t riding in a car. I didn’t even puke. But I did cry unreasonably and with ridiculous fervor later that night, and I didn’t know why. When I started to really get to the bottom of it, I had to admit it: I was just as nervous as Chris was. I didn’t want him to do what he was going to do. But he had to do it. I had to do it. It’s what the story demanded.
I was stalling…I found every possible distraction yesterday to keep from getting to it, even shopping, which I truly hate. That was one clue that I was in avoidance mode. If I ever voluntarily try on pants anywhere, it’s a sign that there’s something even less palatable that I don’t want to do. When I start shopping for swimwear, I know it’s serious. Luckily, it didn’t get that far, and the universe and the middle-aged ladies at the mall were all spared the fright and humiliation of seeing me in a tankini.
Back to the story: I know what happens next. It’s not nice. And I like Chris. He’s like my son. However, like any good parent and/or writer, I have to let him move forward, evolve, make his own choices, and suffer. I have the god-like luxury of knowing (or of thinking I know) where the story will lead, where it will end, what he will gain and what he will lose. I’m excited about making the journey, puking and all. I’ve cried about it, and I’m ready to get going.
Have you ever felt this way about a character? What was your solution?