Something strange happened yesterday while I was writing – or, rather, attempting to write – a scene in a new Lena Jones mystery. The scene didn’t work; it just lay there, stagnant and stinky as a four-day-old cod fillet.
Here was the original set-up. P.I. Lena Jones is interviewing the next-door neighbor of a murdered family. The Scottsdale, Arizona, neighborhood is pricy and the homes accordingly elegant. The neighbor – who was out of town during the slaughter, and can prove it -- is not a suspect, but Lena thinks he might be able to give an overview of the family’s activities in the months leading up to the murders. I had originally planned to write the neighbor as one-half of a married gay couple, an affluent, educated, art-collecting nice guy who had nothing but good things to say about the dead family. Because I believe in setting the “scenic” part of a scene, I went into great detail about the interior of the neighbor’s house: white leather furniture, a wall-sized painting by de Kooning, a sculpture by Giacometti, etc. As the interview continued, the man’s partner came into the room. He, too, was an affluent, educated, art-collecting nice guy who contributed more warm-hearted stories about the deceased family.
The scene didn’t work. It was dull as dirt. All that niceness -- ick! Where was the conflict? Where was the tension?
As I sat there staring at the computer screen, an idea popped into my head. Why not take the same house and the same elegant furnishings, but turn this neighbor into someone you would not ordinarily associate with such tasteful, high-art surroundings?
The minute the idea popped into my head, so did a new character. For the few hours, I pounded out a scene that was surprising, unsettling, and even a bit scary. My fingers flew over the keyboard, typing in this new character’s startling dialogue and some very creepy body language. There was incredible tension in the scene because an ethical and personal conflict now existed between my P.I. and the new character. Lena was repelled by him – and also a bit frightened. Yet she needed to stay in that elegant house alone with him in order to get information about the murdered family.
The weird thing about all this is that I don’t remember writing a word of it. I was so lost inside that creepy new character’s head that I, as an individual, ceased to exist.
When Hubby (it should be noted here that he’s a psychologist) came home from work, I told him what had happened.
“You had an out-of-body experience,” Hubby explained. “It's the same type of experience that method actors use to create their characters. You forgot about yourself and what you originally wanted to do, you forgot about your own ideas and expectations for the scene. Instead, you got deep down and dirty into the mind, heart, and soul – or lack thereof – of this new character. When you disappeared, he emerged. That’s why the new scene works so well, because it wasn’t something you, as you, created. You were channeling him, and he created the scene – not you.”
This morning over coffee, we continued to talk about yesterday’s odd experience.
“You’ve often wondered why you can write two separate series that are so different in tone, from the first-person point of view by two protagonists who have nothing in common,” Hubby said. “But the answer’s easy. You’re using the same method -- method acting, if you will -- that you did in writing yesterday’s scene. When you’re writing Lena, for instance, you become her. Lena, because of her difficult childhood in all those abusive foster homes, trusts no one. She has compassion for crime victims, but her compassion doesn’t extend to allowing anyone to get close to her. Because of her global mistrust of the human race, Lean’s personal relationships – the few that she has – are a mess. She lives in a perpetual state of anger, is always close to the breaking point, and she has an itchy trigger finger. This is a dangerous combination, and that’s why readers either love Lena or are repelled by her. But regardless of all her mental and emotional issues, Lena has a strong, unwavering mission in life – to bring justice to the dead.
“Teddy, the zookeeper in your Gunn Zoo books, is just the opposite. Because she was given so much love as a child, she likes just about everyone. She trusts people – at least until they prove themselves untrustworthy – and she loves both her fiancé and the animals she cares for at the zoo. Her personal circumstances are a little unusual: a houseboat for a home; a self-centered, multi-married, clotheshorse of a mother; and an embezzling father on the run from the FBI who is always turns up just in time to wreak havoc in her life. But for all this, Teddy remains an uncomplicated woman with only one major tic: her mission – besides protecting the animals at the zoo -- is to not become her mother.”
And yes, Hubby continued, when I write these highly divergent characters, I totally immerse myself in them the same way a method actor immerses himself in a role. I put myself and my own personality aside, and instead, I live, breath, move, and speak like that character. For all intents and purposes, I am that character.
Which is what happened yesterday. I was so busy being my new character that I put aside all my previous plans and simply “channeled” the new guy. I didn’t force my ideas about character on him. Instead, I slipped into an altered state of consciousness and let him tell his own story, thus surprising the holy living hell out of myself.
Stephen King once said, “If the writer can’t surprise himself, how can he surprise the reader?”
King was right. But there’s an irony here. And it is…
Only by losing yourself can you find your story – and your most intriguing characters.