I was browsing around today, thinking about my novel and what I’m going to do with it, and I saw that my spirit guide, Chuck Wendig, had written a little piece about characters and how they drive action. It’s perfectly obvious advice when you think about it, and it’s a model that I tried to adhere to in writing my first draft, but I wonder if I actually came as close to the mark as I believe I did.
To help me puzzle through that, I invited one of my characters here to talk it over a little bit. Everybody, please give a nice, warm welcome to the fictional, frazzled, Andrew Remington.
(Andy enters to canned studio applause.)
Me: Andy, hi, it’s great to see you.
Andy: It’s nice to be seen.
Me: I’m really excited to have you here today.
Andy: Well, I’m happy to be here. You’ve had me through the wringer over the past few months, haven’t you? It’s nice to have a bit of a break.
Me: True. That’s my job as storyteller, you know, to give you a hard time. No hard feelings.
Andy: If you say so.
Me: Okay. Let’s get right down to it, because I’m dying to pick your brain a little bit, you know? Crack open the meaty bits and see what makes you tick.
Andy: That’s a metaphor, right?
Me: Yeah, I’ve been working on those.
Andy: Okay, because I remember when you wrote about dropping the piano on that guy, and all of us in the book thought that was going to be a metaphor, but…
Me: That one escalated quickly.
Andy: Dry cleaning bills were horrendous.
Me: That scene is probably not going to survive the first edit, if it makes you feel any better.
Andy: A little.
Me: Right. So. You’re a character in my book. The first draft is done, your story is told for the time being. What’s it like being you?
Andy: Uhh, I’d have to say it’s a bit like living inside a ping-pong ball.
Me: (Tapping note cards on the desk.) Wow. Um. Wasn’t really expecting that. A ping pong ball. How do you mean?
Andy: You picture a ping-pong ball, right? Tiny, white. Opaque. Blows in the wind. Yeah? Say you could live inside of it, what would you see?
Andy: A whole lot of nothing, right? You’ve basically just got the light and shadow outside of the ball and then somebody whacks you with a paddle and off you go, back and forth, over a net that you can’t really see, and you’re banging off the walls and knocking clocks over–
Me: Like in the Great Gatsby.
Andy: …yeah, not like that, really. More in a chaotic hurricane of who-the-hell-knows-what’s-going-to-happen-next.
Me: But that’s a good thing, right? I mean, I’m supposed to keep the audience guessing to some extent, and that means keeping you guessing too, doesn’t it?
Andy: I can see where yo’d think that, but let’s stick to the ping-pong ball.
Andy: The ball just bounces around from one side of the table to the other. It has no will, it has no motivation. It only goes where it’s told.
Me: Uh huh.
Andy: And, if you’re living inside of the ball, then it’s doubly so. There aren’t even any windows to look out of to see where you’re headed, if you’re going in the right direction, or even if you’re making progress. All you do is hang on until you get whacked by another paddle.
Me: I see.
Andy: If anything, living inside the ball, you’re completely at the mercy of the two giant dudes with the paddles.
Me: Wait, there are giants now?
Andy: Jesus, dude, stick with the metaphor. Not actual giants.
Me: Just testing you.
Andy: Right. (Gives me a serious side-eye.) So, the … perfectly ordinary non-giants with the paddles. They can put spin on the ball, they can slam it, spike it…
Me: I think those are volleyball terms, actually.
Andy: Do you want to hear this or not?
Me: Sorry. But you’re saying you live inside the ball, so you don’t drive the action?
Andy: It doesn’t feel like it. It feels like the villains in the story, you know, they’re the ones with the paddles, just smacking the rest of us around the whole time.
Me: Uh huh.
Andy: And I understand that as the protagonists, we’re supposed to take some hard knocks. I get that. But all the same, it doesn’t feel right for us — and by us I especially mean me — to get smacked around for the entire story.
Me: I see.
Andy: Give me a turn at the paddle, you know what I mean?
Me: I mean, I have to disagree with you. You’re the one who makes an inadvertent call to a muse to set the whole thing in motion. You’re the one working against a deadline for the whole story. You’re the one who finally, ultimately, overcomes the whole … well, let’s not spoil it for anybody reading, but the whole series of THINGS, right?
Andy: You’re not wrong, but… look. You’re right. I do things in the story. No question about that, okay? But let’s just take a few examples. I mean, the gangsters jump out and take the rest of us hostage… who bails us out? It ain’t me.
Me: No, you’re right. That was —
Andy: Then the whole business with Harold and the … erm, how can I say this without uh…
Me: The theft?
Andy: Yes, the theft. He steals a THING. It’s gone. He’s gone. Who finds him so we can continue the story? It ain’t me.
Me: I see what you’re saying. That was the other —
Andy: And then, finally, we go to the big showdown, yeah? And Anthony and Julia are running. They’re about to escape. But then they get stopped. By whom? It ain’t —
Me: You, yeah, no, you’re right.
Andy: You see what I mean?
Me: I think so.
Andy: Do I have agency, is what I’m driving at. I mean, pardon the pun, “driving,” but it’s not like I’m driving the story, it’s like I’m along for the ride.
Me: But those moments you’re talking about, that’s where your supporting characters get a chance to shine, right? Like, you’re driving the bus through a post-apocalyptic burned out city, right? And they’re leaning out the windows with RPGs and machine guns shooting off the zombies and blowing up the obstacles in your path.
Andy: Okay, I see that. That’s a nice image, by the way.
Me: You liked that?
Andy: I did. Sounds like a good idea for a story, actually.
Andy: Call it “Murder Bus” or something. But, to get back on track, honestly, you’re not wrong. And I see your point. But I feel like there are moments — and, maybe I’m being selfish here, but I do mean momentS, plural — where, you know, it should be me with the rocket launcher.
Me: I see.
Andy: Smeared with the blood and the smoke and the entrails of the enemy, right?
Andy: Metaphorical entrails.
Me: Uh huh.
Andy: At least one or two moments like that, where I get to shine. I mean, far be it from me to tell you how to write the story. And — I can say this, because I’ve lived it, now — I think it’s a pretty good story.
Andy: It works out all right for me in the end, after all.
Me: Hey, spoilers.
Andy: Oh, come on. It’s a comedy, it wasn’t going to end with a funeral or anything.
Me: Or is it? (We share a conspiratorial look.) No, it doesn’t end that way.
Andy: So yeah, it’s a good story. I just feel like … man, how to say it? I shouldn’t be a bigger part, exactly. You’ve got me on virtually half the pages.
Me: Probably more.
Andy: Probably more, right. I’m tired, you know? So not a bigger part, but maybe a more pivotal part. That’s what I’m looking for.
Andy: If the story’s a big wagon wheel, I should be the axle it turns on.
Me: Right, no, that makes sense.
Andy: Just a suggestion.
Me: So tell me, what’s it like working with the muse of comedy?
Andy: Oh, she’s great, you know? Really, um… what’s the word…
Andy: I was going to say inspirational, but that would be a little bit cheesy, wouldn’t it?
Me: A bit on the nose.
Andy: She’s funny. Very funny. A quick suggestion, though?
Me: Oh, sure?
Andy: Maybe there’s room in the story for a scene where we, um… (leans over and whispers in my ear)
Me: (whispering back) It’s not really that kind of book, though.
Andy: (Shrugs.) It was worth a try.
Me: Well, Andy, this has been enlightening, I’ve really enjoyed having you on the blarg.
Andy: The what?
Me: The blarg. It’s a… it’s a kind of a joke. You know. Blog. But then it’s a blog, so it’s kind of… argh. So. Blarg.
Andy: Is that supposed to be funny?
Me: (sighing) I don’t know. (Stands.) It’s been a pleasure.
Andy: Yeah, likewise.
Me: I’ll see you in a few weeks when I start the edit.
Andy: I’ll bring the lube.
Me: Andrew Remington, everybody!
(Canned applause. Slow fade.)