Writing Chronicles: To all the Characters You never meet

Do you like that imperfect reference to To All The Boys I loved before? No? Well, I thought it was clever.

TATB_Lana_Peter_thumbnail.0.jpg

This latest writing chronicles is to those characters dreamed up by writers but who readers never meet. Specifically, I am referring to the characters who cast a long shadow over events and your hero. In my present story, there are two such characters: my protagonist’s former love and her mother.

While my story may be supernatural, these characters are most certainly dead and will remain so. In general, I’m not a fan of bringing a character back from the dead. It cheapens death and the emotions it conjures up. That being said, I’m not above flirting with it.

wink-wink.jpg

But, as I began to tackle this story in earnest, I decided to begin with character sketches. For context, I haphazardly organize and outline stories. Depending on the story idea, I oscillate between meticulous attention to detail to flying by the seat of my pants.

For this story, I’m hovering between the two.

Some characters, like my protagonist and supporting characters, were easy to sketch out. Where were they born? Who are their parents? Their history? Family dynamics. Notes about how and when they met the protagonist. And, even what happens to them after the story ends.

It quickly became clear that I also needed to write up those two “off-screen characters.” They are the linchpin by which my protagonist pivots. How can she heal? How does she fill in the gaps of her identity when these key people are missing from it?

Sketching out these character histories wasn’t easy.  It was emotionally fraught, too. When I finished one of the character sketches, I won’t say which, I felt such a profound melancholy that I hadn’t expected. As a result, it gave a greater depth to my protagonist.

Consider writing up the character your reader will never meet. I think you’ll find it changes your perspective toward your on-screen characters and your overall story.



A History Lover's Lament: TV Show fuckups

TV writers from NBC to ABC to AMC to Netflix gather in a small conference room awash in shades of calming blue. Some are seated. Most are standing shifting from one foot to another. Silence settles over the group as I stand up. A wry chuckle escapes my lips. My gaze shifts to the pack of Newport 100s in my hand. Ripping the plastic off, I open the pack and slide out one cigarette while looking at them. My unblinking, piercing stare unnerves them. The corners of my mouth flick upward. I like it. I drink in their nervousness.

I take a long drag from my cigarette reflexively closing my eyes. I gently push out the nicotine air. My eyes open once most of the smoke starts to dissipate. Now is the time I open my mouth to say why I gathered them. Why they are standing here?

If you’re not going to study fucking history, don’t write it.

After finishing Season 2 of Anne With an E, I felt annoyed. I took to Twitter and wrote the following tweet:

Anne with an E.png

My main grievance was the modernization of a historical show. I acknowledge that the show is a work of fiction. However, it draws from history and a very real place: Prince Edward Island, specifically in the 1900s. The first season was solid. The writers utilized our expansive knowledge of the effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder to flesh out Anne Shirley. While her fortunes may have changed, at the heart, she was a 13 year old orphan who had a traumatic childhood. That does not simply go away. A moment conjures up painful memories of abuse in the orphanage at the hands of the other children and foster parents.

Anne is not the only character explored with greater depth. Over the course of Season 1 and Season 2, the show spends considerable time fleshing out brother-sister duo Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. Theirs is a story of familial grief, resilience, and hopes deferred. Who could they have been had their older brother Michael not died? His death was a tremendous impact that obliterated their family.

It is through Anne’s experience that the lens expands to touch on the social mores of 1900s rural Canada. Avonlea, for all its homespun, lighthearted glory, is a close-minded, deeply conservative town. Despite being a child, Anne is regarded as defective, troublesome, and broken. From Marilla’s childhood friend Rachel Lynde to the good minister, they are all too eager to believe the worst of her and to shun her. Much of the show consists of Anne having to prove herself worthy, in some way, to this town.

Taking all of the Season 1 groundwork into consideration, the show (and its writers) blow all of that up in Season 2. On the pillars of race and sexuality, the show makes a bungled foray into historical territory that exists on the margins. This is tackled through the introduction of Sebastian (aka Bash), a Trinidadian man, Cole, an artistic Avonlea farm boy, and Josephine Barry, a wealthy relative of the Barry family.

bash.jpg

In the case of Bash, the show relied on obvious racial discomfort and shock of seeing a black man and overt racism. It is then we learn, interestingly, that black people do live in an area called "The Bog." The Bog is referred derisively by white characters as a place for “criminals and the wretches of society.” Yet, that is not what Bash experiences. In this space, Bash finds rest from the white gaze and enjoys kinship. Season 1 demonstrated that Anne, a white female orphan had to prove herself over and over to these judgmental townies that, despite what they thought, she was good. Bash does not follow a similar trajectory. He is, more or less, accepted.

Cole_MacKenzie_01.jpg

Then there is Cole who is relentlessly bullied by an asshole kid Billy and often scolded by his teacher, Mr. Phillips, who struggles with being gay as well. On the show, being gay is demonstrated as being artistic and a preference for hanging with the girls instead of the boys. When he reveals his sexuality to Anne, he finds acceptance. When his world comes crashing down and everything ripped away from him, he finds a solution. He gets his happy ending no matter how implausible.

josephine barry.jpg

Josephine Barry, given what little we know of her financial background other than “well off,” likely lives a life slightly truer to history. With money, she can go to Paris and have extravagant parties. Essentially, live her life out loud. Yet, it circles back to whether or not she would have been ostracized by her family, specifically her relatives in provincial Avonlea.

All of these questions swirl around these characters and yet none tackled to any sufficient degree. This show did not shy away from showing the harsher aspects of life in regards to Anne. However, when they introduce characters of color and queer people, suddenly, their experience is different, better. Warm and inviting. A modern corrective on a likely abysmal but historical experience. Frankly, these characters are written as white, male characters where bad things happen to them but they still win out in the end. Historically, when you exist on the margins, a true happy ending was the exception not the rule.

Yet, when I pull back the curtain, the treatment of history among TV shows is wanting. As a student of history, I cannot suspend my disbelief and gloss over historical experiences. From the practically nonexistent sexism and racism toward Betsy, a black female sex worker in Damnation to the problematic, sloppy Season 2 of Underground, television writers have demonstrated they take too much creative license and paint history with a modern lens. Try as I might I still give them a chance.

hellonwheels.jpg

Only one show succeeded in creating a nuanced take on history and that’s AMC’s Hell on Wheels. It is a masterful study of an interesting time in America’s history beginning soon after the Civil War. This show depicted the realities of life not only in that time but in general. A perfect happy ending is rare but you can still find a good ending. I did not watch the show much after its second season. I tuned out when the protagonist made a choice that was far afield of his character. I could not believe everything that resulted from that decision. That colossal mistake aside, the show kept me captivated. Underground started out on that trajectory and then bungled the play in the second season. I stuck with it but left underwhelmed.


 

From the Vault: Adele and John

vault.jpg

From the Vault is a new series where I share my stories I've written. As originally conceived, many of them are incomplete. They range in size from flash fiction to novellas. I owe it to them to see the light of day rather than sitting in a dusty notebook or on my Google Drive. Enjoy.

###     

Adele awoke drenched in sweat. The remnants of the nightmare faded fast. Her heart thumped in her ears.

            “John,” she called out. Nothing. She heard the distant sound of a lawn mower. Everything clicked into place. Saturday. John. The lawn mower.

            She sat up. The pillow, the bedsheets, her tank top stained in sweat. A flicker of a thought fluttered in her mind but the overwhelming desire to shower pushed it away.

            The cool water on her warm body was calming. As she added coconut scented shampoo to her hair, she mulled over the day. When she finished, she decided coffee first then help John with the backyard. Rake the leaves.

            She waited for the coffee pot to percolate as she watched John from the patio doors. He was sweaty. Clearly he had been mowing for some time. She waved to get his attention.

            He paused, noticeably pulling the earbuds from his ears. She held up a mug. He mimed OK and motioned to the strip of grass he was on.

            She retreated to the kitchen, poured a cup of coffee, and stirred in the hazelnut creamer. The swirling colors, the undulating hole in the middle of where she stirred. The thought bubbled up.

            She left the undrunk coffee, sprinted up the stairs, burst into her room, and flung open the closet door. She searched for the box from Summerview.

            The hairs on her arm stood up. Her heart dropped. A whoosh of wind. She was awash in blue light.

***

            John turned off the mower, eager for a fresh cup of coffee. The pulsing beats of techno music blasted in his ears. He reached for the patio door handle. A jolt of static electricity shocked him. The air in the house was hot and thick.

            “Del, did you turn off the a/c?”

            He pulled the earbuds out. The house seemed to hum. The sound of rushing air and a crashing upstairs drew his attention upstairs. Standing outside Del’s room, blue light flickered from underneath the door. The doorknob vibrated.

            He turned the knob only for it to be wrenched from his grasp.

            A beautiful blue swirling, shimmering portal no wider than three meters illuminated the room. The force of the wind it sucked in lifted him off his feet. His mind could barely comprehend it. He slammed against the footboard of the bed.

            Adele tenuously clutched on to the closet door know. Her body lifted clean off the ground. The portal pulled at her.

            It was real, he thought. Everything she said was real.

            “Give me your hand,” he shouted. He reached out to her. She shook her head. He tried to move closer only to find each attempt slow going and exhausting because of the force of the wind.

            The closet door bolts rattled under the strain. He locked eyes with her. She looked at him and then the portal. He could see her mind thinking.

            There was so much he wanted to say. When she looked at him again he said,

            “I love you.”

            The corners of her mouth flicked upward in a slight smile.

            She let go. Within seconds, she was pulled in to the portal. It was over.

            She was gone.

From the Vault: Eleanora Pinto

vault.jpg

From the Vault is a new series where I share my stories I've written. As originally conceived, many of them are incomplete. They range in size from flash fiction to novellas. I owe it to them to see the light of day rather than sitting in a dusty notebook or on my Google Drive. Enjoy.

###

Out of habit, Elenora Pinto pulled the sun-warmed binoculars to her face.  Atop the cerulean dunes stood a regal red-skinned warrior.  His gray warrior’s tunic billowed in the wind, his hoffa firm in hand.

“My shadow,” she said with a mix of wonder and resignation.  A soft kick from her belly brought her attention back to her swollen frame.

“Two more months and you’ll meet him,” she said as she placed her hand on her right side, the source of the kick.  She looked up at the sky.  The sun, by her estimate, approached its zenith.  Her collection kit and its tools splayed out before her.

“Fuck this.” A sharper kick in her right side came.

“Sorry,” she said to her belly.  The doctors warned her that Geniasian children were self-aware in utero.  She had not believed him until she drew nearer to pahn’lay, the birthing time.  The kicks grew sharper, sensitive to her feelings and words.  That is also when her shadow returned.  A warrior’s responsibility to be near his pa’alay.  She fingered her gold wedding band.

“Are you returning?”

She jumped at the baritone voice from behind her.  She meet Jonay’s gaze.  The gray hood of his warrior’s tunic was up.  She looked back in the direction from whence he came.  Her eyes could see nothing.  No movement.

“How long?” she asked.  She packed up her equipment quicker.  She glanced back up at him.  His dark lavendar eyes had been looking at the gold band she still wore.  Feeling embarrassed more so for him, she pulled on her gloves as casually as possible.  

“Soon,” he said.  His usual baritone slightly high.  Snapping her kit shut, she pulled her own green hood up.  He moved closer, his hand extended.  She hesitated before taking.  Despite the heat, his hand was cool to the touch.  Would my child be cold to the touch like you, she wondered.  He held her hand for several moments.  Her heart started to pound in her chest.  He released his soft grip and moved toward the jym’la.  Or, as Elenora thought of it one of the go karts from a movie her father showed her as a child.  About some guy name Max in the desert.  

She climbed into the tight driver’s seat, clutching her belly as she did.  Jonay stood in the back observing the movements of the coming sandstorm.

“The storm will be here in,” he paused.

“ten minutes of your time.” The familiar word sounded foreign to her ears as Genaisians had a tendency of emphasizing a hard ‘u’ sound in minutes.  Shifting the jym’la in gear, she drove as fast as she could to the research station.  She focused on the dipping dunes ahead and trying to find the straightest and quickest path.  Even at the fastest speed possible, she knew they would not make it before the sandstorm hit.  She felt a soft nudge on her left side.  She liked to think it was the baby’s way of saying it was going to be okay.

“I sure hope so, little one.”

The sandstorm moved in fast.  Faster than Elenora’s buggy could out run it.  The steady green light of the gps winked at her from the dashboard, a calm reassurance she was heading in the right direction.  She glanced up at Jonay.  He stood facing the coming storm, a true Genaisian warrior.  They like to see death coming.  She chided herself for the thought.  They wouldn’t die out here.  

Would they?

The storm picked up in strength.  Quickly outpacing and eventually surpassing the buggy.  The green light taking longer and longer pauses between winks.  Elenora tightened her grip on the steering will and pressed the gas pedal down further.  But, she could no longer see the light.  It stopped blinking moments later.  Keep heading north west, she told herself.  Keep heading north west.

“It won’t go any further,” Elenora screamed over the roar of the sandstorm.  She looked up in the general direction of where she knew Jonay stood but she could not see him.  The blue swirling, writhing sand blotted out his shape.  She pressed on the pedal and the buggy vibrated and then shook violently before going silent.  Maybe he felt that at least, she thought.  

“Jonay,” she called out.  Nothing was her answer.  No audible response. No touch to indicate he was there.  Had he abandoned her, she thought.  The little one in her belly had gone silent as well.  No kicking.

Her hood kept out most of the sand but fine silt began to seep in. She shifted her leg and felt sand move around her calf.  Her heart leaped.  Sitting still any longer and she would be buried alive.  

“At least I would be with Aaron,” she mumbled.  Out of habit, she looked around for her shadow despite the fact she could not see.  Jonay did not like to her to talk of Aaron.  Her time before.  But how could she not.  He was her husband.  She felt a tiny pain in her heart, as if someone took a needle and pierced it.  At this, the little one poked her.  In spite of her sadness, she smiled.

She groped her way to the front of the buggy.  The direction they were headed.

“Last gps reading. Five maybe 10 minutes ago? 10 miles from station. How fast was I going?” she thought aloud.  She gripped onto the front of the buggy.  Her heart pounded in her chest. Her breathe quickened.  

“Jonay,” she called again.  Nothing but the howl.  One reached out into the swirling blue sand.  The other still gripped the buggy.  

“C’mon Elenora,” she whispered.  She took a deep breathe and let go.  

###

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this little space adventure set not-too-far into the future.