awkward

The Unexpected Evolution of Character

I just came across this unfinished blog post from a year and a half ago, and it made me laugh, so I decided to finish it. I no longer spend all day writing in coffee shops, and the manuscript I mention here has been collecting dust for months, but come summer, I hope to be having more awkward conversations in public and putting more words on the page.

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The Unexpected Evolution of Character

I spend a lot of time writing in coffee shops. Recently, I walked into one and saw a man standing in line with his little boy. The man looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. I claimed a spot at my favorite little table in the corner, grabbed my wallet, and headed to the counter for my large café au lait. The man was still there. Worried that perhaps I did know him and was being weird by not speaking to him, I said, “You look familiar. Do we know each other?”

He said, “I don’t think so. I’m Jeff,” and he offered his hand to shake.

A brief conversation led us to the conclusion that we didn’t know each other but both frequent this coffee shop and had probably seen each other here before. By then it was his turn at the counter. He handed the barista a large glass jug and asked for a refill of the shop’s cold brew coffee while his toddler toddled around between us. By this time, a woman had entered and was standing in line behind me. Out of the blue, she said to me, “Do you like to heat it up?”

I stared at her. I said nothing. No appropriate responses came to mind. After standing there awkwardly for a moment, wondering if her words would make sense if I’d already had some coffee, I said, “Um… what?”

She nodded toward the man in front of me and repeated, “Do y’all like to heat it up?”

Well, this was completely inappropriate. No, I did not like to “heat it up” with this man. I didn’t even know this man. I suddenly, desperately wanted to be safe in my cozy corner table with my headphones on to block out the world, especially crazy women who asked me shockingly inappropriate questions. Seeing the confusion in my eyes, the woman said, “Oh, are you not together?”

Me and Jeff? No! We just met, barely, sort of, in line. It turns out the woman was referring to the coffee. She also likes cold brew coffee, but in the winter she likes to heat it up. Well, not Jeff. He never heats it up. In fact, he likes it better cold in winter. I stood there while they bonded over their favorite beverage until it was finally my turn to order my café au lait and scuttle back to my corner table, slightly scarred by the whole ordeal.

In a way, though, it fit perfectly with what I was struggling with in my current manuscript: I didn’t know who my main character was. I mean, I knew who he was in general. He was a kid being haunted by ghosts who were mad at him for skipping Halloween. But the specifics of the kid—his age, his family situation, his attitude—kept changing, making him feel vague and hard to pin down. I was employing the bracket method I learned in a workshop at The Writing Barn with YA author Ashely Hope Peréz. While writing my messy first draft, I placed brackets around prose that needed to be fixed or blanks that needed to be filled in or story ideas that I wanted to come back to later. It’s a great tool to keep you typing when your brain wants to second-guess or micromanage every little thing, but my brackets were getting out of control.

In one paragraph, my character (whose name kept switching from Donald to Miles) went from being a carefree, ten-year-old orphan to a surly, twelve-year-old kid who resented his parents for going on a vacation without him. At one point he even (briefly) changed gender. I was feeling discouraged about my lack of consistency.

But after my encounter at the counter, things suddenly seemed less dire. I mean, here, in real life, in less than five minutes, a man had gone from being a familiar-looking stranger, to an acquaintance, to my husband with whom I possibly liked to “heat it up,” and back to an acquaintance again.

So I dove back in to my messy manuscript, and I allowed my character to be whoever he/she wanted to be in that moment. I typed and typed and bracketed and bracketed, the only rule that I keep the momentum going forward. And after half an hour, I actually felt closer to my character, who at this point I was sure was a boy named Miles with parents who were alive. Slowly but surely, he began to reveal himself to me, and I felt more comfortable about where we were going together.

Much like Jeff. After all the confusion, I can now say with certainty that Jeff is a man who lives in Austin, has a young son, and likes cold brew coffee, even in the winter. That is all. Our story ends there. Miles’s however, is still going. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.