|Terpsichore (a muse), marble, John Walsh 1771|
by Dixon Hill
About five weeks ago, Louis Willis posted an article concerning character development and the impact it has on a writer’s sanity. In the Comments section of that post, I cited earlier comments made by Fran, Elizabeth and R.T., and explained that my system of character creation/development was sort of a “rough hybrid” of certain ideas they had espoused.
Inspired by Louis’ post, I wrote my own post (2 weeks ago), in which I explained how I sometimes incorporate daydreaming and play into my methodology for character development. This post partially clarified what I meant in my own comments on Louis’ post. And, I mentioned something Fran had written, in her comments about Louis’s post, to hopefully help facilitate my explanation.
Today, I will expand that explanation by noting how some comments made by Elizabeth illustrate ideas that sometimes figure into the “primordial stew” of my character development. Additionally, I’d like to touch on the importance of “non-daydream dreaming” -- as I believe it factors into the equation.
(I’d like to take a moment to make it clear, here, that: Though I might quote Fran, Elizabeth or RT in order to use their quotes as springboards for my own ideas, they are just (and ONLY) that -- Springboards. You should not think I am speaking for them. I can only speak for myself, in this realm, and would not want anyone to think I’m trying to convey what Fran, Elizabeth or RT may actually believe concerning the subject at hand. Such clarification, I would leave up to them.
Further: This series of essays concerns the manner in which I have sometimes created characters and/or plot in my own successful writing. The reader, however, should not construe this as meaning that I believe the methods outlined are the “right ones” or the “only methods” that a writer may use. Instead, my objective is merely to share methods I have used in the past -- for those who may have an interest in such techniques – and to possibly theorize about the psychological origins of these methods, as well as their possible link to the origin of the Greek term “Muse.”)
That Being Said . . .
Elizabeth wrote, in her comment on Louis’s article about character creation: "...the character starts talking in my head. I simply write down what he or she says..."
This sometimes happens to me, too. And, I always think I’m really lucky when it does. Because, a character who starts talking in my head usually has a humdinger of a story to tell, and s/he tells it very forcefully.
In my opinion, such “character force” really adds punch to writing -- even in the first draft. A character like that is often angry, hurt and bursting with story. You cut ‘em, man, and they just spill their guts all over the place. It spews out hot and strong; they’re not shy. And, what they say will cut a reader to the emotional quick. Very powerful stuff.
What is this voice?
Well, the voice is my imagination, of course. But, in a very important way, it’s more than that, because -- while each voice is inarguably a part of me, generated by my own imagination -- it also stands apart from me, extremely alien to the thoughts that had, moments ago, been dominating my conscious mind.
This sort of voice is what I often think the ancient poets were speaking of, when they coined the term “muse,” perhaps because it seemed as if the gods must have injected the thought -- wholly unexpected by the thinker -- straight into the thinker’s mind.
My belief, however, is that these voices in my head are generated by my subconscious. I suspect that the reason I’m often startled by them, and surprised when they speak out in my mind, is because they’re created when a subconscious thought bubbles up into my conscious mind.
|"Three Sphinxes of Bikini" Salvador Dali|
One thing I believe most researchers agree on, however, is: Among other tasks, our “subconscious” is that portion of our thinking which generates dreams. And, our dreams (mine, at least -- and I assume yours also) are populated by people and creatures that are not silent. They speak to us. In some cases, even when they don’t use words, their body language and facial expressions leave us feeling that they desperately desire to communicate some intangible idea to us. This can sometimes be an idea we (our dreaming selves) intuit as having great importance of some kind.
I often find that the “voice” comes when I’m looking at something that ignites my interest. A few seconds or minutes later, as I’m concentrating on that visual “igniter” (or catalyst), a voice suddenly, and surprisingly speaks out in my head. Conversely, on rarer instances, when I’m listening intently to some auditory catalyst, an unexpected image (or “vision”) will suddenly explode across my mind’s eye.
I believe the intersect between the conscious mind and the subconscious is one of those largely-uncharted areas I discussed a few paragraphs earlier. And, the theory I would postulate (I know of absolutely no scientific evidence to support this theory, I might warn you!) is that, when the subconscious tries to communicate with our conscious brain, it does so through it’s dream-generation mechanism.
When I’m looking at a visual catalyst, my eyes and the visual centers of my brain are already fully engaged, so I hear a voice -- the auditory portion of a dream (according to my theory) that’s generated by my subconscious, and communicated to my conscious mind through that portion it can access: a sort of “bridge to conscious thought,” if you will. Likewise, when my auditory senses are already engaged by a catalyst, I receive the visual portion of a waking dream, because my visual senses are not engaged, leaving that pathway open to my subconscious’ intrusion on my thoughts.
In other words, I believe these “voices” and “visions” are the result of my subconscious using dream-mechanism-stimulation to communicate with my waking mind, along pathways that are not (at that moment) tied-up in the reception of catalytic stimulus.
This is why I say that the voice I sometimes hear is created “when a subconscious thought bubbles up into my conscious mind.” Additionally: I believe, this is why -- while the thought obviously comes from my own mind -- it also seems alien, and apart from me. Who has never encountered a disturbingly alien landscape in a dream? When the audio or visual portion of a dream suddenly intrudes on one’s waking mind, that can be just as disturbingly alien in nature.
What can act as a catalyst for these voices?
For me, at least, that varies greatly.
The protagonist’s voice in my short story “Dancing in Mozambique” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July 2010), for instance, first spoke to me when I sat looking at a “Mysterious Photograph” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
For those unaware: AHMM runs that Mysterious Photograph page as a contest, asking for short-shorts around 250 words, and they publish the winning entry a few months later. The photo in that month’s issue showed a staircase in what seemed, to me at least, to be a haunted house, or a spooky old tumble-down hotel.
|Not the AHMM photo, but you get my drift.|
I looked at the photo, and suddenly heard a gravelly voiced man in my mind say: “When a pineapple came bouncing down the steps of that spook house staircase, I knew we’d found Jai. He’d seen us coming.” The voice had a rough, haunting and “hunted” edge to it that spoke of exhaustion after long foot-slogging and prolonged bombardment of adrenalin. It wasn’t a voice I’d ever heard before, but I instantly knew the man behind it.
I knew him, because I’d known a lot of men like that. I’d met them while I was in the army. At times, in fact, I’d been that man. My subconscious knew him inside and out, which (I believe) is why -- though I didn’t recognize the voice, itself -- I KNEW that man! And, knew him WELL.
As I am wont to do, I let the voice continue its tale as I typed the words into my computer. This is similar to what’s often called “stream of consciousness” writing, though, in a case like this one, based on the theory I postulated earlier, I would tend to deem it a “stream of subconscious.”
First, the man told me what happened immediately after that grenade (“pineapple”) had been tossed down a dilapidated staircase at him.
Later, I listened as he told me what had happened to him previously, how he had come to find himself in this dark place.
I knew, when I met his voice, that the man was a soldier. But, I didn’t know what kind of soldier. Over time, as he told me his story, I realized that he’d spent many years working as a mercenary in Africa.
At that point, I remembered an old adage I’d once learned. This adage, a sort of short limerick, or “mantra,” is a mnemonic device designed to explain (and help people remember) how to ensure that a person who is shot does not survive the wounds. It is a method named, I believe, for the place where the technique was born: “The Mozambique*.” And, I knew then that I’d discovered the axle around which my story’s helix could be entwined, as well as the name of the tumble-down hotel in which the action took place.
After the voice in my head finished speaking, I went back through what I’d written -- cognizant of the Mozambique axle I wanted running through the center of the story -- and put down the lines that fit into 250 words, yet still strongly told the man’s story.
The 250-word version of the story was probably not terribly good. I don’t love it, because, to my way of thinking, it is a skeleton. And, though there is suspense, there is little mystery -- particularly at this length. It certainly didn’t win the Mysterious Photo contest, either. But, I wrote it more as an exercise in teaching myself to write shorter, than as an attempt to win a contest. [As readers of my posts on SS may know, I’m not somebody who has been successful with short-shorts. In fact, the shortest story I’ve written, that sold, was submitted at 1,500 words (to a magazine that wanted 1,000 to 1,500 word fiction), but later -- after I cut it further, at the editor’s request -- finally ran just under 1,000 words. And, serendipitously, that story "Buffalo Smoke" came out in this month's (April 2013) issue of Boy's Life.]
The initial (250-word) version of “Dancing in Mozambique” is posted below, so you can see the results of the above process. As I wrote earlier: I don’t love it. The voice in my head is still there, however, for you to “hear” as you read it.
Readers who wish to do so, and who have access to the July 2010 issue of EQMM, may read the final product for comparison and contrast -- which may prove interesting, particularly in light of my next post.
Dancing in Mozambique
The Hotel Mozambique, Chicago. Aptly named, I thought.
When a pineapple came bouncing down the steps of that spook house staircase, I knew we’d found Jai. He’d seen us coming.
Jai was a tricky bastard—learned that the day I met him. We fought as mercs in Africa. His last trick was stealing our pay, leaving us to die.
But Claw and I survived.
Now the pineapple. We dove right and left; as effective as hiding behind a sheet of paper. The grenade hit bottom, but didn’t go off.
Claw shouted, “Dud!” scrambled up the stairs, feet pounding on the hollow, rotted wood. I saw the pin still in the grenade; Jai always was a tricky bastard.
I started to shout. My warning died stillborn, executed by a heavy-caliber double-tap from above. The slugs kicked Claw’s body half-way down the stairs.
Blue smoke curled down the staircase. A step groaned.
I side stepped, saw a jeans-covered hip between rail and ceiling. I fired; blood geysered and Jai fell, weapon bumping down the steps. I vaulted Claw’s body and rounded the landing, pumped a round into Jai’s torso—center mass—as he struggled to pull his backup piece. My third shot drilled his head.
I walked away, recalling that long-ago training mantra learned in Africa, when I still called him friend, before he betrayed us: “Twice in the body, once in the head; that’s the way you know he’s dead—when you dance in Mozambique.”
I shut the door behind me.
In two weeks, I will explain how R.T.’s comments on Louis Willis’ post (the one that set all this in motion) illustrate the manner in which characters organically changed, in order to add depth and life to the piece, fleshing-out the 250-word skeleton into the final story of nearly 8,000 words, which sold to EQMM. This explanation, however, will necessarily evolve from a discussion of “character creation” into a discussion of how character action and interaction sometimes blossom naturally into organic plot. Which is why I’ll save it for next time.
See you in two weeks! --Dix
*Please note: Though I learned of the “Mozambique” during my tenure in the army, neither the Mozambique technique, nor the limerick that accompanies it, are taught in any US Army schools, nor is the technique considered acceptable practice.