Write a Character as Stubborn as You Are!

When does a character stop being a cardboard cut-out of a person and start being an obnoxious, whiny toddler that you’ve brought into the world? When you get to know them. I don’t mean filling out lists of questionnaires on hair color, eye color, and three main personality traits. I mean nitty-gritty staring contest. A battle of wills between you and the unfortunate soul at the center of your story.

Let’s look at Golden as an example. I could rattle off facts and figures about her life and looks. I “met” her when I was only ten years old. Through every iteration of my novel, she has looked the same and kept the same moral principles. I know her very well, and yet she surprises me. She is brave when I cannot be, mean when I expect her to be kind, and gracious when I expect her to be selfish. In the last three pages of the novel, she made a shocking decision that simply flowed from my fingers like I had planned it all along. She is her own person and makes her own decisions. If you cannot control your protagonist, then you have done your job well.

But how do you get here?

Let them walk into your mind, let them look around. Let them pull out your memories and say, “I’ve felt that too”. Ask them how they feel when no one is watching. How do they fill up space? What are their favorite movies, foods, and songs? Who and what would they choose to be with them if they were stranded on an island? This can be awkward. It’s ice-breakers and stunted conversations. If they don’t answer immediately, just breathe. They will.

Obscured but solid

During drafting, I was following a plot I’d scratched down in a little notebook. I had only plotted the broad strokes, though. The rest burst from my brain like I was rapidly recording the events as they happened. This is because my characters are so firmly rooted in reality.

This topic makes me think of Mary Shelley. She called Frankenstein, the novel, her own hideous progeny. She birthed a “monster” just as her protagonist did. Like so, a character is not just words on a page. They should sit next to you, hold your hand, scare you. Let them annoy you and stomp on your feet. When you hear a new song and their little voice shouts ‘me! me! me!’, listen to it. You’re not crazy. When you’re frantically typing a climactic scene and you stop, wondering why you feel something is wrong, listen to it. I have had these characters flirt with each other when they weren’t supposed to and make ugly mistakes where they were supposed to have triumphed.

The thesis of this piece is to let your character be an obnoxious pain in the butt. Let them be the kid who’s yelling in the grocery aisle while you sigh exasperatedly. Be proud of them. Support them. Let them be as stupidly stubborn as you are.

Writing Setting

I think all writers often see their work playing like a movie in their minds. I know the exact layout of each place, what everyone is wearing, and what the background music must be. I am a writer who believes firmly in the philosophy, “don’t write about a place you haven’t lived in”.

The settings of my novel— that I will call ‘V’ for secrecy’s sake— are Cape Cod and Manhattan. These are two places I have spent extensive time in and can call second homes. I wanted the world to breathe, to feel lived in. I also wanted my two main characters to have very different opinions of New York. To one of them it is a glamorous home and to the other a claustrophobic nightmare. I wanted to conjure the splendor of old money wealth right alongside the seeping trash and horrible summer humidity.

Golden Manhattan

Very old money glamor, weekends in the Hamptons. Too much time staring wistfully at paintings in the Met. Too much shopping at Bergdorf Goodman’s and excessive dinners at The Russian Tea Room.

I wanted to create a dreamscape Manhattan. One that may not exist, and if it does, is only for the American elite. A city full of old 90s glamor and a gilded underbelly of corruption. It’s all glitter, greenery, and bombastic blue skies. In this Manhattan, there are sprawling libraries, soaring galleries, and clean city streets. In this Manhattan, the only things that go bump in the night are the result of too much champagne. It is so beautiful it becomes grotesque.

This also serves as an introduction to one of my two main characters, who I will simply call for this sake, Golden. She has always reminded me of The Truman Show.

Longing Cape Cod

The other half of my story takes place exclusively in memory. It’s Cape Cod in a lucid dream. Sunny lens flares and echoing seagulls. It’s a lost, idealised home long turned to ash.

This Cape Cod is hazy, heady, and dusty with with motes of light. Everything’s a bit blurry, like it’s been cycled through a wash and crumpled at the edges. Worn with love. If returned to in reality, it would not exist. For my character, nostalgia is a drug that overpowers the senses. It feeds on the edges of everything.

And now I will create an alias for my second character. We will call him Longing. He has always reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The only way to live in your setting is to live in your characters. Entrench yourself in their emotional connections to the place. Setting can be just as powerful a presence as a well-rounded protagonist. What do they love about the place? What do they detest about it? Pack the place with little details you noticed when you were there. I wrote about the 116th subway station, Fifth Avenue at Christmas, and an apartment at the Beresford because I’ve walked those places myself. Provincetown, on the tip of the Cape, is filled for me with amazing nostalgia. Deeply rooting setting in what you know is key to rooting a possibly outlandish novel.

World-building is not just for fantasy writers. When setting is carefully built, you end up with writing that is both deeply personal and specific. Write what moves you. Infuse the page with what it feels like to walk where you have walked.

NOTE: All images in this post are not mine.

The Funniest Option: a Life Philosophy

Let me share with you the key to surviving senior year. I’ll set the stage if you’ve forgotten what it’s like: it’s raining, you’re late to class, you have a 12 hour day at school, five hours of homework, college rejections waiting in your inbox, and god, what you wouldn’t give for two seconds to breathe. Sometimes I wonder how more people don’t just have absolute mental breakdowns.

I am a proud and accomplished expert on senior year misery. They call it ‘senior fall’ for a reason, don’t they? I am happy to tell you I have cried in every single bathroom in the upper school. Yup, every one. Even the gross ones in the history building. Even just walking around the halls! Misery, misery, misery.

Enter Sofia. I’d been in classes with this girl for all of high school and barely spoken to her. Suddenly she becomes my favorite person. Why? Because she always, without fail, chooses the funniest option. This is a lesson that not only got me through senior year but also just might get me through life.

Sofia speaks seven languages, is related to Greek aristocrats, and is a genius. I don’t remember exactly how our friendship started. I think she was as chaotic as I was concerning and it just worked. She tells absurd lies for fun, ‘only eats noodles on Tuesdays’, and every time I talk to her she’s mysteriously traveled to another glamorous European country. I kind of think she’s an immortal teleporting witch.

Anyways, the key to surviving life is surrounding yourself with the most chaotic people possible. Have a friend that likes to run through sprinklers in the middle of the night? Great. What about one who has like no shame, has probably murdered someone, but is also oddly motherly? Mhm. Don’t forget the one who sends 8 ball requests as a response to angry texts, or the one that goes to eat at a ramen shop and just orders a bowl of plain bean sprouts. The key is chaos in the little ways.

Drive two hours to goof around at the mall and buy build-a-bears. Sneak into the tunnels under the school. Hiss at middle schoolers. Put on a play at your Quaker school that features characters holding guns (very un-Quakerly), and send an email asking if anyone, god please we’re desperate, has a taxidermy deer head we can borrow. Buy your grumpy advisor a sparkly jacket with his fantasy football team name (coolnballer) on the back. Just go absolutely feral.

The funniest option, in the wild

I love that my generation’s response to trauma is humor. I could write pages of horror stories about why I’ve shed so many tears, but instead, you get this. Whatever this is. We’ve had enough sadness. I just want to make someone smile.

If you’re feeling stuck, lost, and scared of change, I see you. If you’re class of ’22 and wondering where your childhood went, I see you. Do me a favor, and do something a little crazy. Howl at the moon, join a barbershop quartet, make a friend who is 100% more insane than you are. Frankly, be as stupid as this post is.

Go for it, live a little. For me, that’s the difference between life happening to you and you happening to life: the funniest option.

So You Finished Your Novel…

Finishing a project that is currently your greatest accomplishment in life can feel, for lack of a better word, weird. I start this blog at a junction point in my career. This is when my story stops being just a world in my head and starts to exist in other people’s heads, too. Weird!

When little third grade Vivian was playing a goofy game at a friend’s house she could never have imagined it amounting to 117,000 words of ‘book’. To be fair, that version of my novel had a lot more killer robots and a lot less sanity. Sometimes I look back on the art I made— think concept sketches for Alien — and decide I was a very concerning third grader. The point is, it has taken my entire life thus far to create the book I finished a few weeks ago.

The view outside when I finished my book

This is the magnum opus of my young life. My room is filled to the brim with character sketches, plot charts, sticky notes. My computer has pages and pages and pages of all things my novel. It has become such a central part of my identity, but also something a lot of people don’t know about. Not to sound like Hannah Montana— it just doesn’t come up in conversation in your typical high school classroom. Sure, recently you may have seen me toting my gigantic manuscript around campus with an odd frenzy in my eye and red pen stains on my hands, but for the most part, it has been a quiet endeavor. I wanna slap the cover and shout ‘look at this bad boy!’. I almost did when it came off the library printers, piping hot.

You’ve heard of post-show depression? Well, this is post-book depression, and it’s ten times worse. When I’ve closed plays I’ve acted in, there’s always the familiar bout of sadness. The set comes down, the castmates go back to casual acquaintances, and the lines begin to leave your memory. The act of writing, however, is a solitary one. One that, particularly in the last few months, has taken up every nook and cranny of my brain.

I don’t have something to distract me in class anymore! The misery! No more frantic typing and someone asking me ‘are you okay?’ because I’m accidentally pulling the same horrified face as my character. I feel like I went on the world’s greatest, most immersive vacation and now I’m cut off cold turkey. Don’t worry, though, I’m a master procrastinator. Instead of frantically typing, now I’m researching agents and publishing. The grind never stops.

Next steps are scary. Instead of thinking about my world and characters, I’m thinking about marketability. How much soul gets sacrificed for price? As I work with mentors and professionals, how do I remain rooted in myself? I never want to get lost in the buzz of money or a toxic need to publish. A major goal of mine throughout this process is to keep my passion for writing at the forefront of my mind.

The big kahuna

I think it is slightly ironic that I have finished this novel just as high school is ending. I’ve seen that pattern a lot in my life. The rose I was given on closing night of my show in eighth grade wilted just as I graduated a few weeks later. It held on that long. My goldfish who lived for fourteen years died just as I started high school. Things tend to end poetically for me— or my sappy mind makes them poetic. The difference is now I have accomplished something no one thought I could do. And it’s damn good.

I feel slightly like I’ve raised a child to send into the world. It’s wide-eyed, weird, and a bit concerning, but it’s mine. I love it. I hope you will too.

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