Friday, July 15, 2011

Character Development: Son of Late '60s Civil Rights Activists

Writing is kind of an undefinable experience. I think that's the kindest thing I can say about both the passion and frustration of my existence ... and what really and truly makes me who I am.

Yes, I have reached a point where I identify myself by my writing. Is that some sort of rite of passage? I don't know.

But anyway ...

Even before somebody told me, "Write what you know!", I did that. It was just the scope that grew, and sometimes I got swallowed up in that. I mean, I couldn't write about life as an adult when I was a fifteen-year-old high school sophomore, no matter how hard I tried.

But sometimes life or your muse or whatever hands you gifts.

The most memorable character in my completed novel, in my opinion, is Roy Pentinicci. I knew when I created Roy that he was the son of a mobster and was scarred permanently by his childhood.

As he stands now, Roy is a composite of three people.

The first and strongest influence is my longtime (and former) best friend, Andy--I think I've said before, but when I met Andy at a party when I was nineteen, I was like, "Holy crap, this guy is Roy!"

Andy is incredibly good-looking, he's been collecting many and varied sexual notches on his belt (and I'm not proud to admit it, but I own a few holes on said belt) since he was fourteen, he is street smart but not at all book smart, open to crazy adventures that you'll never forget, able to fix anything, incredibly charismatic, and really kind of a dink when you get right down to it. Andy's first concern will always be Andy, which is really kind of a tragedy.

The second influence is one of my former students, Chris. Chris had the kind of home life no child should ever have. He was eventually removed from his home, moved to a different state with a new family, and became a successful student and a star baseball player. He was a very street smart kid, and he also possessed a strong charisma that just drew people to him. Everybody listened when Chris started talking.

Like Andy, he had a tendency to look out for number one, but Chris has the ability to articulate his thanks, to understand the role that others played in the successes he has ultimately achieved in life and to be grateful for it. I still have a letter he wrote me on Teacher Appreciation Day many years ago, and I have stipulated in my will that I want to be buried with that letter because it meant so much to me.

Roy became kind because of my friend Roland, someone who is a polar opposite from the Andys and Chrises of the world. I'm not in touch with Roland as much as I used to be, which makes me sad, but unlike Andy and Chris, he has been known to read this blog, so I hope he sees this.

Roland is an introvert, a passionate reader, a mathematical genius, someone with the ability to see the world through the eyes of anybody, and an unfailingly kind person. He thinks outside the box, and his intelligence is frightening at times. He is one of the deepest people I have ever met, and I was never able to really like Roy as a character until Roland's influence stepped in.

And so life gave me three people who fit together (and it's not 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3, by the way ... Roy is 75% Andy, the good and the bad) to create a flawed, fascinating character when combined with what I already know.

That manuscript has a dedication page, and it's in three parts--one to the girl who was my best friend from first grade through high school, one to my brother Adam and my sister Mary (they know why), and one to Andy, Chris, and Roland (you'll get their real names when the book's published ;-)).

I've flown rather far afield from my point, though, which is this: you can only sit there and wait for life to give you a character for so long.

My latest WIP has a supporting character who I know is the son of Civil Rights activists that protested with Martin Luther King, Jr. and were present at his assassination in 1968. I can't get a handle on either this man and woman or on their son.

This is what I know:

The boy does not like to talk about his parents.

He feels tremendous pressure to prove himself in a world that his parents fought for him to belong to, and he resents that pressure, although he doesn't realize it.

He suffers racist acts, including a burning cross placed on the lawn of his dorm and fairly regular posting of slurs on bathroom doors.

He is fiercely brilliant in the classroom but turns on the Eubonics when he is out of his teachers' range.

I know that his parents travel around the country on a lecture circuit, sharing their experiences.

They do not trust what they see as the tenuous truce African-Americans have with America.

They are disgusted by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

They are shocked when two of their son's (white) best friends get in a physical altercation with a bully at school who refers to him by a racial epithet, facing expulsion in the process.

They feel an obligation to "make it up" to their son's friends, which is a bit awkward for everyone involved.

I cannot for the life of me write these characters with any sort of dimension at all. It's like writing about Roy before I met Andy, and I am very frustrated.

I am not a sloppy researcher. I have read extensively about this time period, about the people who would be their peers, about the tribulations faced by a child of activists.

Yet I can't seem to make these characters--either the parents, which is bad, or the boy, which is even worse--come alive.

Anybody have ideas, suggestions, or even some criticism? I love my work in progress, but I'm at a roadblock that I can't seem to get around.

Um ... help!