WRITERS ON WRITING; Let Your Characters Tell You the Story
By JOYCE MAYNARD
A number of years back, a murder took place near where I lived in New Hampshire that left the citizens of the state riveted to their televisions. A young teacher at a small town high school -- married, in her 20's, with aspirations to become a television journalist -- was accused of plotting the murder of her husband.
Published: February 24, 2003
Part of what attracted people to following the case was that the accused woman, Pamela Smart, seemed so unlikely a killer. Pretty and well spoken, she had appeared on our television screens many times in the weeks before her arrest, making impassioned pleas that anyone who might know something come forward to assist the police in locating her husband's killer.
That person turned out to be Pamela Smart herself, with the assistance of a 15-year-old boy from the school where she taught, who said he was her lover.
I had so many questions. If in fact she had committed the crime as charged, what was the motive? What would inspire a teenager to put a gun to the head of a man he'd never met before and pull the trigger?
In my years as a journalist I'd conducted my share of interviews. But even if I could gain entrance to the jail, I knew that the questions I most burned to ask would never find their answers there.
I believed the best hope for locating my answers lay in the creation of fictional characters, modeled in some ways after the principals in the real case. And so, without a clear idea of where my story was headed -- only a knowledge borne from living much of my life in small New Hampshire towns where I'd known boys not unlike the one now sitting in the county jail accused of murder -- I began to write.
The first voice I adopted was that of the boy -- a leap of imagination, you might say, for a woman then in her late 30's whose contact with 15-year-old boys, when she was herself that age, was only as a quiet and shy observer in my high school classroom and my own small town. I became the boy for a while, then I was his mother, then I was the schoolteacher, and then the disaffected girl who would ultimately win favor with the boy and the teacher by providing them with a gun.
Here's what I believe happens when a writer begins her story with an authentically realized character (as opposed to one from central casting, formed out of the necessity to see a certain preordained action take place). If she allows him to take shape slowly on the page, if she resists the urge to make assumptions based on what she thinks he should do, he'll take on a life of his own and very nearly reveal the direction of the story.
The process that comes to mind here, that most resembles the one I undergo when I embark on bringing a character to life on the page, is that old art class exercise I still love, the contour drawing. You set your pencil on the paper and keep your eye firmly locked on the face of your subject, and then you let the pencil begin to move. You don't look down at the paper. You don't allow yourself to tidy up the image, and because of that, the image you create is likely to be a strange one.
An eye may show up on a cheek, the brow intersecting an ear. The strange thing is, an honestly executed contour drawing, created by a patient hand and a more patient eye, often conveys a more accurate rendering of the subject than one of some more deftly executed suitable-for-framing likeness.
In every novel I've written, I began with character, and allowed the drama to emerge out of human nature and relationships. Whether or not the story I constructed in my novel ''To Die For'' ultimately answered the questions posed by the real Smart case never seemed of import to me. I didn't write a novel about that case, and the only authenticity I cared about was that I remain true to the nature and motivations of the characters I'd invented. By the time I reached the point in my telling of the story where the boy entered the condo and shot the husband, I didn't hesitate or agonize over the scene. I knew what he would do and say, same as I knew the woman would turn on him after.
It doesn't always work, this practice of ceding one's control to one's character out of the faith that he will lead you to the story. A while back, shortly after a high school shooting in San Diego in which the gunman had been a 14-year-old boy, I embarked again on a quest to locate the answers rarely uncovered by journalists in cases like that one: Why?
Once again I took on the voice of a boy (a different kind of boy this time: wisecracking child of divorce, abandoned by his mother, taunted at his school) and let him start talking. I constructed a world for him: the apartment complex where he lived, with the TV always on, the skate park where a bunch of boys stole his board, the first day he showed up with it. Two hundred pages later I'd located ample evidence for understanding his pain and sense of isolation, his longing to be heard.
I wrote his story right up to the morning he was due to go to school and open fire. But when the moment came to write the scene in which he put the gun in his backpack, I knew I'd failed. I still couldn't find believable motivation for that one small act, so crucial to everything else. I put the novel in a drawer.
In the fall of 2001 -- a couple hundred pages into a different work of fiction -- I stopped through New York City to see my older son for a few days. My plane landed on Sept. 9.
After the events of that week, the novel I thought I was writing no longer made sense to me. Or at least it seemed impossible at that moment to immerse myself in a story that did not in some way take into account the experiences of those days and the ones that followed, the sense of loss and the questions: What do we do now? Where does hope lie?
I spent close to a month in New York, walking for miles, studying the faces on fliers, listening to people on the street. I found myself focused in particular on the experience of young people during that time, tried to imagine my own children, if they had seen me go out the door that morning and never return.
Sometime over the course of those weeks I heard the story of a woman killed in the towers who had left two children, one by a former husband, one the child of the husband she'd been married to the day she died. Now the older child would be leaving the home of her little brother and stepfather to go live with her father.
I didn't know the particulars of that family's story and would not have invaded their terrible grief to ask. But as a parent, divorced many years, whose own children had navigated the territory between the worlds of divided parents, and as the mother of three nearly-grown children whose greatest source of strength outside themselves lay with one another, I knew some things about divisions in families and connections among sibling, and what I didn't know I believed the process of creating characters might reveal to me.
The novel I ended up writing that fall, winter and spring (''The Usual Rules,'' which has just been published) was not the one I was embarked on, that I'd planned to write that fall. My story was not, in the end, about Sept. 11 at all, and certainly not about the family whose story I heard mentioned that day.
To my surprise and relief, the novel I wrote turned out not to be a tragic one either, though the story I told was touched off by tragedy. The girl I created on the page, faced with the death of her mother, separation from a brother and stepfather she loved and the prospect of going to live with a father she barely knew, turned out to be a strong and ultimately hopeful person. I would not have been able to imagine, when I embarked on her story, how it might be that a young person could rebuild a life after the events of that day. My character told me.
Maynard, Joyce. "WRITERS ON WRITING; Let Your Characters Tell You the Story." The New York Times 24 Feb. 2003. Web. 21 Jul. 2013.