Monday, November 2, 2009

When Characters Surprise Us

Quentin Angus--1942--1944 by Rita Angus I had an unusual week for me in that I was in my Doctor Mom role the entire week. Ordinarily, I do a bang-up job being Doctor Mom—for three days. I’m the Best Mom Ever in my children’s eyes, the house still seems reasonably intact, and I still manage to look spiffy enough to make a quick run to the grocery store and not look like something the cat dragged in.

Not so much this past week of nursing Mr. H1N1.

For one thing, the dynamics have changed a little bit. The last time my son was this sick was several years ago. Then he wanted to be pampered and have me check up on him frequently. He even rang a little bell when he needed me.

No more! This was more the scenario with my twelve-year-old:

Me: “How are you feeling?” Him: “Fine.” Me: “Really? Because you’re covered with sweat and you’re sitting here in nylon shorts with no shirt. And it’s a chilly day. That’s not really all that normal for you.” Him: “I’m fine.” Me: “Let’s take your temperature. You’re flushed! And your eyes are watery!” Him: “Mom. I. Am. Fine.”

Although his temperature was 102.

He was unhappy with my nursing attempts until I went more with the flow. He clearly wanted to be left alone and crawl into a hole and die. He did not want his mother hovering over him at all times. I was not ready to accept that he had changed and needed some more breathing space.

My characters sometimes want me to go with the flow, too, and accept some changes. Are yours the same way? (Non-writers will think that statement a little wacky.) Sometimes I get a character in my head. He’s a Walter. He looks like a Walter, talks like a Walter. He’s an accountant or an engineer and somewhat overeducated.

Suddenly, Walter wants to be an animal rights activist. No, no, no, no. I’ve already mapped Walter out. He’s busily crunching numbers during the murder—and very greedy and killed for money.

But then it turns out that Walter doesn’t want me hovering over him, expecting him to behave a particular way. No, Walter is having a mid-life crisis and wants to rediscover his childhood love of animals by becoming an activist. And, by the way, he’s in love with the murder victim’s wife. So there!

Walter’s alter ego can be doodled on scratch paper. It can go on a separate Word file that never sees the light of day. But it needs to happen.

Sometimes we should just go with the flow. Accept a few changes along the way. Not expect someone to be a particular way all the time…even for characters.

I owe it to the story. And, possibly, to Walter.