“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." E. L. Doctorow
I love a good quotation. Years ago, I treated myself to a hardcover copy of Bartlett’s Quotations and spent many an evening perusing its pages while sipping a glass of Chablis. (This was in the ‘80s, and I didn’t have much of a social life at the time.) As a writer, I have always been drawn to quotes about writing. One that hits home will either be an affirmation, or it will take me in a whole new direction. Either way, it’s a good thing.
One of my favorites is above. For years I struggled to outline a novel before I began writing it. Eventually, I’d ditch the plot that refused to grow and start with a plot seed and a character. At the start, I didn't know where either was going. I was certain that “real” authors didn’t write this way. When I read Doctorow’s quote, I felt vindicated. And, unless I'm writing a series where some characters appear in each book, I learn about them as I write them. This leads to occasional upstarts--mutinous characters who fall flat on the page and refuse to get up unless I make some changes. I try not to let them push me around. Boundaries are important. I also recognize that I am easily led. (Wishy washy some might say. I prefer open-minded.)
At any rate, every now and then a character will make a strong, novel-changing case. Here’s how it happened one time:
I am at my desk scribbling ideas into a notebook, deciding where to go next with Heartstone (2005), the contemporary Arthurian novel I’m working on. It involves a young woman, Maxine (Max), and her quest to learn the truth behind a rare gemstone her father left her. I look up and see minor character Earl Jessup sitting in the chair beside my desk. There’s a sheen of sweat across his high forehead. He’s drinking a cup of coffee—no, not coffee—beer. From a can. It’s Budweiser or Old Style. I can almost smell his sweat, and he’s not making eye contact with me as he takes nervous sips. I imagine this is how most of the Game of Thrones cast look as they open each new script.
“What is it, Earl?” I ask.
“I, uh, thought we could talk.”
I set down my pen. “What?” I don’t mean to be short, but I’m in the middle of an idea that doesn't include him.
“Can you, uh, tell me what’s gonna happen to me next?”
“I can,” I say, and because I don’t believe in leading anyone on (plus, it’s a lot easier to be direct with an imaginary person), I continue, “You’re dying in the next scene.”
“Oh.” His shoulders slump and his sigh is so deep I wonder if he’s going to beat me to the punch and commit suicide. But then he shakes his head and squeezes his eyes shut.
I feel a twinge of pity. “It’s the way it’s got to be, Earl. You are not only expendable, but you were created in order to die.”
When he opens his eyes, I can see his confusion, so I continue. “These are bad people you’re working for. You are the first in a series of deaths, each more significant than the last. I have to keep upping the stakes.”
“I’m the least significant?”
I shrug. “Someone has to go first.”
“You know, you’re lucky you’re even in the book. My supporting characters all audition. I throw them on the page, and I … see if the cat walks on them,” I end lamely.
“The cat walked on me?” He sounds both disturbed and hopeful.
“It’s just an expression. But, yes, the cat took a step or two across Earl Jessup.”
His Adam’s apple bobs up and down as he swallows.
That pity twinge persists. “Earl, I created you for one reason—you’re hired by the villains to steal a gemstone from the protagonist. After that, they will have no use for you. And neither will I.”
“You mean I find it?”
This stops me. In my current notes, I am thinking that the bad guys shouldn’t get possession of the stone this early. “Well, no. But you failed. So now you’re toast.”
“You—you mean they can’t use me anymore?”
“B-but why did they hire me in the first place?”
“You’re good at breaking and entering.”
The chair squeaks as he leans back.
“The thing is, Earl, I can’t afford to keep you around if you’re not earning your keep. And look at it this way. You’ll be dead by the end of the book no matter what. You’re not a bad enough guy to keep around for another book. You’re a run-of-the-mill henchman.”
He raises an eyebrow. (I didn’t know he could do that.) “It’s a series?”
“Um, yes. It is. A trilogy, I think. Hope.”
He nods as he digests this. Earl isn’t an imposing character. I think his inspiration was the Phillies’ John Kruk, who famously said, “I ain’t an athlete, lady. I’m a ballplayer.” (Another favorite quote.) So why am I feeling uneasy?
“Okay,” he says. “If I’m so good at breaking and entering, I can’t be that stupid, can I?”
“That’s all you’re good at.” Real or not, this is hard. “You’re not that bright, Earl.”
He gives me a curious look. (Again, where did he learn that?) “Really? Or maybe I just seem stupid? What if I’m, you know, not so stupid?”
As I watch him, Earl’s features shift. His eyes aren’t quite so flat now—their edges turn down a little so he seems either sad or lost. His tan windbreaker is frayed at the collar, but it’s clean. When he’s not holding the can of beer, which has changed to Rolling Rock, he fidgets with his hands. Cracks his knuckles? No, Earl wouldn't call attention to himself. He's a below-the-radar kind of guy. That could also make him easy to underestimate. Hmm.
Now he’s smiling a little.
I say, “Maybe—no promises—but maybe I could have them use you for more dirty work.”
Earl opens another Rolling Rock. “Do you really need another bad guy?”
“But if you’re not a bad guy, why are you helping the villains?”
He pushes the beer toward me. “What if I don’t want to be doing what I’m doing?”
I consider this. “Then you’d need a reason to be helping them. Any ideas?”
He shrugs. “You’re the writer.”
As I wrap my hand around the cold beer, it starts to come to me. “You have a brother. He’s bad news. He’s in jail. But he’s your big brother and you love him. They threaten to have him killed if you don’t help.”
Now Earl is smiling and nodding.
He’s also looking a bit smug, but I know not to discard an idea before it experiences the cat walk. “Okay, I’m gonna play with that. I promise nothing.” I jot down notes. This takes a few minutes, and when I look up, Earl is still there.
“What now?" I continue writing. "I am not going to make you the romantic lead.”
“I’d never ask.” He pauses. “Can I play third base for the Cubs?”
“Absolutely not. That's harder than breaking and entering.”
Several moments pass. “Okay, but I would like my own point of view.”
My pen stops writing, and I look at him. “Seriously?”
“I’m stingy about my point of view characters. Convince me I need you.”
Without hesitation, he says, “What do all your viewpoints want?”
“Okay. It’s Max’s quest. She wants to find the stone and then see where it takes her. Nick knows he’s got a crucial part to play but has to figure out what it is. Olivia wants to cash in on any profits. Jillian wants to please her father.” I'm getting the subtle brain buzz that comes when those headlights reveal an intriguing path. “Maybe all Earl wants is to survive and keep his brother alive.” I drink some beer. “He doesn't care about stones or quests or legends. His is the most objective point of view.”
“See? You need me.”
“Maybe.” I open a new Scrivener file and begin typing.
I’m a paragraph in, and I can feel him behind me, probably reading over my shoulder.
“What? You want a pony too?”
“Um.” He makes a scratchy sound as he clears his throat. “Can we talk about the next book?”
I keep typing. “Get out. Now.”
Earl went away.
But he also stayed.