Ed Koch (1924-2013) died the other day. And as with all great men, almost immediately, there have arisen tributes. One of the most moving tributes was a video interview, originally shot in 2007: The Last Word. Why? Because you got to see the old man, grappling with the imminence of sure death, sum up his career. He talked about his goals and achievements, failures and successes, enmities and deep, abiding friendships. “I want to be remembered as being a proud Jew who loved the people of New York and did his best to make their lives better.”
There is something in us that craves the Huckleberry Finn moment—that voyeuristic moment when you can watch your own funeral: the eulogy, weeping, chest beating. It’s probably the best episode in Huck Finn and it really is the instance when Huck becomes closest to an author: manipulative, all-seeing—the young barefoot boy sits in the balcony above everybody and gawks at the spectacle he has contrived. Ed Koch’s video, whether he intended it to or not, is a moving tribute video…because it feels as if it were planned with full knowledge that this would be the mayor making his own eulogy.
At the end of life, when you’re forced to sum everything up, you have to be blunt. Ed Koch is quite straightforward; he spells out all his beefs. Rudy Giuliani was a mean-spirited person who was terrible to be around with. Mario Cuomo, the mayor always despised for the ugly gay-baiting campaign slogan: “Vote for Cuomo, not the Homo.” Few of us can be so straightforward. We are taught, in fact, that to be straightforward is socially undesirable. It can make you appear crude. So we censor ourselves. And we often censor our characters.
If you’re having trouble developing a character, this exercise will get you going: Spend a minute and watch the video—it’s a half hour but worth it. Then, start off with this basic question addressed to your character. What do you want to be remembered for? Koch could reel these things off in a list: 1) Getting the city out of bankruptcy 2) Giving back spirit to the people of New York 3) Taking politics out of the selection of judges. “I’m the sort of person who will never get ulcers. Why? Because I say exactly what I think. I’m the sort of person who might give other people ulcers.”
So, here’s your task. Get your character to answer the eulogy question. Make it the entryway to the beginning of a short paragraph long monologue. And get them to channel their inner-Koch to lay it all out in crude, straightforward, no-holds-barred language. Get them to own up to their beefs and failures, fears and tribulations. So what if your character is quiet, reserved and prissy and they would never talk like this. Inside all characters is a voice that knows what it’s about—an inner Koch. This will easily jumpstart you into a deeper understanding of your character and, if you do this write, it will deliver a bonus: it will get you a plot.
Khanh Ho spent many years living in a small town in rural Iowa, teaching Creative Writing at Grinnell College—a small liberal arts college, nestled in a windswept prairie whose distinguishing feature is the presence of a Super Walmart. But then he had a light bulb epiphany: he’ll never produce writing if he persists in teaching it. So, now he is happily pounding away at the keyboard, knocking out not only his first mystery novel but, also, the first mystery novel featuring the first Vietnamese American detective. Why? Because, yes, he’ll be the first; yes, it’ll be a power trip; and yes, because he can! Follow him on his great adventure at www.losangelesmystery.com
Image: by Camera Operator: PH3 PATRICK J. CASHIN (ID:DN-ST-88-09107 / Service Depicted: Navy) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Note from Elizabeth: Thanks so much for a great guest post and writing exercise today, Khanh! I appreciate it.
I would be remiss if I didn't add a postscript here (am sure my publisher would think I was being remiss..ha!) that I have a release today. Book two of Southern quilting mysteries: Knot What it Seams is available today. If you know anyone who enjoys traditional cozies, please consider letting them know. I'm featured in an interview with Examiner.com's Terry Ambrose here, talking about the book. Thanks!