Last Friday’s Free Write Friday prompt from Kellie Elmore was the below photo:
What struck me about the photo was not so much the twister itself or the girl in the foreground, but the way people’s lives can often feel like they’re caught in a storm. And, how lonely that girl’s silhouette is. From nowhere – truly, nowhere, as I am, at the moment, working on three very different stories with nothing to do with the prompt – a scene popped into my head, bright as a bolt of lightning: a young man and young woman hiding together, to be together. It was very conversational but still mostly descriptive of their clandestine affair, which is why I chose not to submit it to the prompt.
The odd part about this story snippet was not the flash of inspiring imagery, or the way these characters felt like familiar ones to me, or even the main conflict fashioned by my brain for why the two of them should meet in secret. Rather, it was the smaller conflict of their histories. Specifically, how religion related to their interaction.
If you think violence or sex are hot-button issues, they’re nothing compared to religion. I don’t even feel very comfortable talking about it, here, because… I don’t know. Because I’m scared, I guess.
Not many readers take issue with crime or violence in stories. It’s part of real life, after all. Sex is a slightly touchier subject, probably because it’s associated with prurience or deviance (which is not always the case, but I think I’ve belabored that point already). Faith, though, is unique to each individual person. Nonetheless, it often feels like we’re treated only to religious extremes, in fiction: fanatics like Margaret White (the mom in Stephen King’s Carrie) or the Republic of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Given such examples, it’s hardly a wonder that religion often does not play a role in many stories, at least, not a prominent one.
So, why did I take a religious angle for that scene? Mostly, it came from the dialogue. Evidence of their faith sprang, fully formed, from these characters’ mouths. They didn’t preach to me or to each other. They simply were who they were: a mid-western society girl and her working-class, ex-Army boyfriend. Not even their different racial backgrounds featured so prominently in their characterizations as their religious upbringing.
It was weird. Because my own faith is very personal, and I’d never inject those feelings into a story. Not consciously, any way. Sure, religion has had its part. I’ve examined Shinto, but only for the burial rituals and a wedding ceremony; two of my earlier protagonists were Catholic versus Protestant just for a few low-level jabs; I’ve looked at Anglicanism in a broader sense from a social perspective, mostly to counterbalance the dourness of one of my scientific empiricists. But having characters mouth off to each other about church and faith? That was new.I liked those characters, though. I think I could do something more with them. Even if that something more is just a story where I’m not so afraid of letting my characters speak freely about what’s important to them.
Have you ever had your characters take you by surprise, about their personal agendas or perspectives?
I always find it intriguing, first how characters and ideas pop into your head, and second when they start behaving in a way that you wouldn’t expect. Sometimes, I think it’s a little like dreams in that there you experience things you wouldn’t normally experience in real life, and somehow get something out of your system. I think when characters take an unexpected turn, it’s something in my subconscious that wants to speak up, or an unmet need I have in myself to experience something that I wouldn’t normally allow. Interesting, Mayumi! Thanks for sharing this little part of your process 😉
I love when characters can do this for me. It’s like I’m not even thinking as an author, I’m thinking as my pawn as he goes through whatever the story has put in front of them. I love doing this with Wedge and the gang the most; they’re just too much fun.
Thank you, Gabriela! I must admit, I’ve been taking a lot more inspiration from the writers around me. I think you all have shown me how to better trust my instincts than I’ve done in a long time, and that’s likely what’s giving these characters the freedom to mouth off to me more. 🙂
I know what you mean about being the mouthpiece, Shade. I do love when characters just seem to breathe their words through my fingertips. In those instances, I feel like I’ve done a good job creating solid people. This was different, though – I usually feel somewhat in control of who my characters are, but Rollie and Ree (the couple in this story) just started saying things I totally never expected to write! It’s been fun seeing the world through their eyes…and mouths. 🙂
Thanks for stopping by!
You’ve learnt a great lesson, Mayumi!
What I teach, more than anything – in fact, the only thing I really teach – is how to first get to know your instincts, and then second, let them guide you. Brilliant stuff you!
Some of my earliest characters surprised me regularly. Wait, she married this guy? That changes everything I thought she was!
A newer character, like Meghan, hasn’t pulled surprises in the midst of a story. Of course, her transformation from a nameless “poetic archaeologist” meant to help me describe archaeology to the star of her own short stories was unexpected. 😉
I wonder if there’s a greater likelihood of surprises when the author is a pantser rather than an outliner?
Yes, my characters surprise me all the time. But I think that’s what I love best about creative writing anyway. I usually go in the direction of the surprise and try not to stifle it–at least in the beginning stages.
As far as politics and religion, I keep it very neutral in my stories, mainly because I have yet to write a story where either of those topics are important in the plot line or character development.
Sex, however, I deal with quite readily. Maybe because, for me, sex represents more than sex (I’d italicize that, but I don’t know how in a blog comment). I find that sex can lead us into areas of a character’s life that on the surface doesn’t have anything to do with sex. I’m sure politics and religion can be used the same way, I just haven’t found a need to write about them yet.
I wonder that, too, JM. Somehow, I think – I hope, I guess – that any style of writer can still be taken off-guard by his or her characters, when the time is right. 😉
Thanks for commenting!
I like your point about how sex – and, by some association, religion and politics – can be used to inform the reader about more than just their surface meanings, Kate. I enjoy exploring that intimacy, as well.
This instance was odd because I usually stay neutral, too. Most of my characters tend to be non-denominational in terms of both religion and politics. I just let them talk, though, because I liked the way their voices flowed, religious hangups and all. I don’t think I’d ever seek to publish them or anything, but I can see myself continuing to play with their story, just for the fun of that freedom. 🙂
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Yup. No matter how long I spend getting to know them, they still surprise me. Sometimes I’m certain of what decision they will make and then when I’m writing the scene they do something else. I swear they exist in a parallel realm and simply narrate their story to me. 😉
Oh, I know what you mean about those pesky characters! I feel exactly the same way, sometimes, that I’m just a stenographer getting down all their thoughts, words, and actions. It’s a great feeling, though. 🙂