Session with Lynn Voedisch
Writers often eagerly turn in their first draft manuscripts, or even just single chapters to test readers to find out if they are going in the right direction. Full of anxiety and a bit of hopeful expectation, new writers wait to hear if their characters and plot seem true to life. So, it’s a bit of a shock when instead of Big Picture musings, they hear such minutia as “why didn’t Charlie hug his girlfriend in the park?” Or “Natalie seemed so outgoing in early chapters but she spent the whole party scene hiding behind the ferns. Was she afraid of someone?” Or worse, “Lenore was a grump. She didn’t even seem to like her own children.”
Oops. Something went wrong. You can’t save the world if the characters are off. The author didn’t intend to make the Charlies, Natalies and Lenores bad and fearful people, but something about the writing style in specific scenes betrayed him. Fortunately, there’s a cure for that. You simply turn the characters around 180 degrees, no matter how much this hurts. It’s a good exercise and you’ll see new things you never suspected about your character.
This happened to me when I was writing Dateline: Atlantis, an urban fantasy about a journalist, Amaryllis Lang, who finds pyramids and ancient buildings deep on the Caribbean Ocean floor. All along, I had painted Amaryllis to be friendly and a bit fiery; independent, not one to back off from a challenge; talented and ambitious. But I also noted that being based in Los Angeles, which she never considered home, she was homesick for her native Chicago. Plus, she wondered when she’d ever find love. I figured that was enough crack in her armor and she didn’t need any more soft spots. She was, after all, going to change the world.
When the Atlantis story took a wild turn and the reporter’s photographer (with all the Atlantis evidence) was kidnapped, Amaryllis found herself back in Chicago. So why not take a trip to the family home? In my original manuscript, Amaryllis is afraid to make contact. She visits with former colleagues but puts off a visit with her relatives. She drives up to the house and sits across the street just looking at it. It’s winter and she burrows inside her coat as if it’s a cocoon. Finally, she slips across the icy porch of the family home and tries twice to abandon the quest and go back to her car. Eventually, she pushes the doorbell and is swept inside by her bustling aunt. (Please don’t get confused by the name change. It takes too long to explain here, but Amaryllis was called Amy Quigley years ago in her Chicago home.)
“Who’s there?” the voice repeats. Amaryllis realizes an unseen eye is peering through the peephole, trying to figure out if this visitor is a political huckster or an Avon lady.
“It’s Amy!” she hears herself shout.
The door flies open, warm air rushes toward her fear-taut face, and Freya stands in front of her, all soft, round and comforting. Her hug is like falling into a big, warm pillow.
“Amy Quigley, my Lord help me. Get yourself in here. Why didn’t you call?”
Freya grabs her visitor by the woolen sleeve and yanks her into the toasty living room. City of extremes. Amaryllis smiles. She never liked the blandness of Los Angeles. She can handle the weather here. If anything, it makes things more interesting.
“Oh my, oh my,” Freya says, alternately hugging Amaryllis and then standing back to stare. “After six years, you’re suddenly standing right here in front of me! When did you get into town?
Freya fusses like a woman with a royal visitor, peeling off Amaryllis’ coat and puffing up cushions on the couch. She creates a cozy place to sit, plops Amaryllis there, then goes to the kitchen (twenty steps away – Amaryllis counted them when she was twelve) to fetch coffee and cookies.
Once fed hot liquids and cookies, Amaryllis is back into the family unit as if she never left. She’s lectured a few times for not coming back home for six years, but it’s good-natured ribbing and no one means her any harm. Soon, Amaryllis is laughing at old stories and accepting an invitation to stay for dinner.
In the previous version, when the reporter accepted such radiant love with less than enthusiasm, my test readers practically hit me over the head. “Why should she be afraid of her own family?” “You made them sound like a bunch of child abusers. What would make her so scared?” “She faces down criminals and chiefs of police, the mayor, people of power, etc., and she’d be afraid of her aunt?” They were coming at me from all sides.
That’s when I had to admit that the fear was coming from me. I was afraid to really get to know my own character. I could love her as an alpha female getting great scoops and finding one of the biggest stories of all. I could give her the forgivable flaw of being a mess when it came to organizing her apartment. (Wouldn’t you guess that I’m a mess too?) But getting down to the soft and loving Amaryllis, the one that weeped at night for her lost and murdered parents, the one gratefully taken in as a young child by her aunt and uncle in Chicago – that took some change of perspective.
I didn’t have too much to rewrite. I chopped off all the mincing about and reluctance to go, made her reception of her Aunt’s love unequivocal, and the rest of the scene just flowed. Once I rewrote the chapter to the one it is now (and the excerpt above remained unchanged), the book mellowed and allowed a wonderfully deep and soulful love story between Amaryllis and a childhood friend to develop. It turned Dateline: Atlantis into more than an adventure, murder mystery, and fantasy, but a romance too. I’d never written romance before, but this one was powerfully satisfying to me because now I felt as Amaryllis felt.
In the scene at home, I decided to go for broke and add more links between Amaryllis and her aunt, including a love of reading and mystery, thus leading her aunt into the main plot about the pictures of Atlantis and her kidnapped photographer, Lucas Garrett.
Amaryllis leans backs into the Victorian couch, banging her head a bit on the wooden frame, rubs her scalp, and launches into the story of Garrett and his abduction. She edits the parts about his photos and the Mexican adventure, but admits he had something the perps wanted badly.
Freya, a devotee of police potboilers and true-crime paperbacks, listens with her blue eyes frozen in a state of shock. She looks like a cat that has suddenly found itself in the middle of a flock of sparrows. A real, bona fide mystery just makes her glow.
“So now, we’re waiting for them to release him tomorrow so we can get him home,” Amaryllis continues, ending her story with a satisfying gulp of roasted java.
By this time, Amaryllis is not only comfortable in her childhood home, but is in a place where her story can go forward – and it does. And I, as an author, found numerous ways to link her up with sources, helpers, and even her eventual love match. It’s hard to see how that would have worked had I stuck with the original and sent her bounding out of the house as if she had just completed some barely tolerated chore.
Characters in all sorts of stories can benefit from this kind of about-face analysis. Tough guys become tender in a love affair, wimps suddenly grow large in a situation, dispassionate bureaucrats cry at the tale of one hungry girl. All this serves to make a writer’s character grow, and thereby the story broadens as well. Even if you decide not to use the Turn it Around chapter, keep it nearby. It will constantly remind you of what your character could be thinking if you give him or her a chance. Most importantly, it will be a reminder that you didn’t run and hide from the other side of your leading fictional star.
Exercise 1 If your character is a physical specimen that you’ve always attained to (strong, beautiful, a super-intellect), decide to make him or her the opposite in this exercise. If your protagonist is tall and uses that to advantage, make him short. See how the difference in size changes the way the character controls the situation. You may end up keeping the new look.
Exercise 2 Change the season in which the scene takes place. This scene leans heavily on it being in winter, but it would be something else entirely in spring. Try taking your Turn it Around and set it in autumn or some other season that changes things. No fair moving the whole thing to California (unless it started there in the first place).
Exercise 3 Turn one easy-going character into a grouch. Make him difficult to win over. Then your character is no longer afraid to encounter the family (or whatever the problem is in your scene) but now he or she faces the large problem of trying to soothe the grump and let him know there is nothing to fear. After that, your protagonist’s problems are really nothing in comparison, and he or she may have won some friends in the process.
About the Author…
Lynn Voedisch writes contemporary fantasy like no one else. Technorati called The God’s Wife, “a feast of romance and excitement, keeping the reader in its thrall with suspense,” and Windy City Reviews said of Dateline: Atlantis, “Voedisch is able to project a variety of places and times, a blend of people with different ages, genders, educational levels and interests, and miraculously connect the dots for a greater good.” http://www.lynnvoedisch.com