Vol 1 Issue 4
Characters in Kill Devil
If a story’s characters are the most important elements in fiction, and they are, the process by which they are developed need to be calculated deliberately; all the Internet articles on the subject say so. Uh uh. A few characters are born fully-formed, like Venus on her half shell, and if so, the calculation becomes how to wrap a story around them. A few, but not many. More frequently they grow out of the circumstances they’re placed into.
When I asked the characters in Kill Devil how closely they expected to be crafted, they just giggled among themselves and returned to what they’d been doing.
The two main characters in Kill Devil go back to the earliest sketches of the story. As the plot developed there was always the question of ‘what would Charlie the middle age bachelor cop think about it?’ and ‘where did that come from in his back story?’ Ditto for BJ. She has driven across the country like a mad woman in a rattletrap station wagon, but why? What is she running from or toward? Until those questions can be answered, dialogue is fumbling, and the action is just a mess.
BJ is someone I’ve known, and cared about. As I wrote her story, I was reminded of what time we once held in common, though BJ the character is totally fictional, if that makes sense. The initial idea of BJ’s back story came from Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, which if you haven’t read yet, I don’t know why. Through most of The Liars’ Club I held my breath, doubting she’d ever make it out of her childhood.
If you recall, an art professor at Clemson said the first brush stroke was his, and the rest were corrections. That applies even more so to fiction. Take the age difference between Charlie and BJ. He has to be middle age to be the world’s greatest skeptic, and she can’t be anything but young or she’d have grown out of her predicament by the time the story starts. So right from the start, their age difference needs to be respected in the dialogue and the story’s plot. But BJ and Charlie at least have the advantage of being the initial idea.
The other characters are a wholly different story.
The bar scene that begins Chapter Four introduces the main cast. Two of which are African Americans. They show up at this redneck bar, and how are they to be written? Taressa, the young black woman was drawn physically from someone I knew who wasn’t even black. She’s beautiful, with long dark hair and a wickedly dry sense of humor. I hear she lives out west somewhere. In the story, Jackson, the black street punk is pure figment, so he’s taken a lot longer to wrestle down. In the early drafts, he kept insisting on being more than a plot point. I think I’m still finding out what makes that boy tick.
So as a man, how well can you write a woman’s story? How do you get honestly inside her head? Is the large population of female writers going to pillory you for trying? And if she’s black and you’re not? Oh yeah, that’s stepping into it. In this country it seems a lot of African Americans still live in a subculture off the mainstream, whether by choice, or to avoid being constantly reminded of how too many view them. But because Taressa has a college degree and lives in the white world, her life as part of that world wasn’t as hard to imagine. And she’s young enough to think she can find a place inside the mainstream. The fact she comes from humble beginnings places her close to BJ; eh voila, back story for them both. She doesn’t become a complete person until you meet her mother, late in the next book, but from that point she’s as familiar as anyone can be. Introducing her mother’s character began to solidify her own.
More central to the story, if you’ve never served in the military or as a policeman, how do you figure what Charlie’s motivation in law enforcement is? Since that’s the core of his story, I’ll leave it alone. Read the damn book.
Then there’s the guitar dude at Stormin’ Norman’s. He came into it mainly to give the Chapter Four bar scene a different point of view than Charlie’s. Some characters just get away from you.
I should mention that Stormin’ Norman’s Honky Tonk Lounge was a real beach bar back in the 80s. I taught my three year old to tell his mother he’d been there, practicing the name the whole way back to the summer cottage we rented. It’s been renamed but the same seedy place still occupies prime real estate on Route 12 in Kill Devil Hills. Here’s to the making of a legend!
What does anyone know about another person? That they laugh at some jokes and frown at others, that they love/hate/don’t understand their parents? That they come from wealth or come from the swamps or the projects? Eat trash food and watch too much TV? Do they need to be scintillating at a party and who’s to say what’s witty? What’s important is how these characters arrive at the time of the story. They are those secondary brush strokes after the first one’s been laid down that bring them to life.
When I named the guitarist after my college friend, I figured I had a working back story. Boy was I wrong, but that’s a piece of what the story’s about: choices. If he ever reads this, I expect Lewis will give me grief, but hopefully he’ll enjoy where Kill Devil takes him. So this week’s blog is dedicated to Lewis, who played the hell out of that thing.