Friday, April 24, 2020

Kill your babies, kill your parents

Parents are hard to write. There are multiple reasons for this. First off, assuming your IRL parents are alive, there's a higher than average chance they will read your book. In the early days, they may even be among the few who do. And you can never discount the odds that they'll be reading between the lines to see if you borrowed anything from them. Whether you did or not.

Beyond that, parents are often secondary characters. You're writing a story about Joe, or Sally, or Joe and Sally. Joe and/or Sally are the stars of the show. You develop the hell out of them. Joe likes peanut butter sandwiches and listens to Bach at work on his headphones to cancel out his moronic, lazy co-worker in the cube next door. Sally fosters homeless ferrets and bakes lemon bars for her elderly neighbor. She had her heart broken by a college sweetheart who never quite seemed to look her straight in the eye. Joe doesn't look her straight in the eye, either, but it turns out he's got a glass one, which endears her even more to him because she has a soft heart for anyone with any claim for an underdog story.

And Sally's mom calls her too often and wants her to visit, but Sally doesn't want to because her mom always pesters her about grandbabies and smokes Marlboro Lights at the table and its bad for both Sally's asthma and appetite. And Joe never got along with his dad all that well because his dad was the coach on his Little League team and got all moany because he struck out too much and dropped a crucial pop fly in the playoffs. Sally's mom and Joe's dad are easy to dislike because they never put much effort into truly understanding their kids.

And they're easy for readers to dislike because they're essentially cartoon characters.

But do readers dislike them because they're unlikable or because they're cliched?

I recast most of the secondary characters in Nine Bucks a Pound two or three drafts into the rewrite process. Del's original wife, mother, and father were awful human beings. Because none of them were human. His dad, in hindsight, looked and sounded a lot like Marty McFly's grandpa in Back to the Future. His mom could have been Marty's grandma with less personality. His original wife was a flat, whiny bitch. His dad was an alcoholic asshole who nearly disowned him for cheating. His mom just wanted to bake pies and keep the peace.

I had to kill them all.

Milo Tanner is one of my favorite characters I've ever written. Del's recast father had a back story worthy of his own novel. (Maybe someday.) He had a unique job and a reason for acquiring it. He had an outlook so much more positive than he could have settled for. He loved Del's mom even though she didn't love him back quite as much. She just wanted, deep down, to have a good time. But not at a cost of hurting anyone else. She was fun to write, too. Del's new wife wasn't necessarily fun, but she was real and my main problem with her was Del hurt her feelings and because my sympathies lay mainly with Del, I felt guilty about that.

They made the book. As in they made it work. For me, anyway. Maybe I'm biased, but to me, reading back through my own works, Nine Bucks a Pound, despite its horseshit sales, is the best book I've written to this point. Nothing against my others. I love them all. Again, maybe I'm biased. They all have their strengths. But Nine Bucks is my favorite, and that's largely due to the supporting cast. Hell, if I could be anyone in any of my books, I'd probably pick Milo Tanner. I'm not nice enough, though. I couldn't pull it off. But goddam if I wouldn't love sitting up on that bridge all day long watching the boats go by.

I'm maybe two-thirds of the way through a first draft of what I hope will be novel #6. A long, long way to go until it ever sees the light of day, but it's taking shape. Judging by my typical process, it will see significant (and I mean major) rewrites somewhere between drafts one and three. Some characters won't survive the process.

I already know who two of them are. Henry's mom and dad suck. They are cliched cliches. They deserve to be killed off.

It's not their fault. It's mine.

I'm not sure I was in love with them at any point since I started writing last summer. In fact, I've never liked them. At first maybe I fooled myself into thinking they needed to be unlikable. But now I've put my finger on it.

Their major fault is you already know them. You've met them in a hundred other books. You haven't liked them in many of those, either. I was reintroduced this week when I started reading The Floating Feldmans. And not to pick on the Feldmans, because I've encountered them in a number of other books. But I didn't happen to be writing them at the same time, so it didn't hit me as hard then. But when you're writing a flat, unlikable, narcissistic bitch of a mom while reading a book starring a flat, unlikable, narcissistic bitch of a mom it kind of jumps out at you. When you're writing a workaholic dad straight out of central casting while reading a book starring one pretty much like him, well, it's hard to miss the signs.

This all hit me last night right before bed. Which made sleep a challenge. Or more of a challenge than it usually is, and it's not usually as straightforward and simple as it should be. So I lay there tossing, thinking about Henry's mom and Henry's dad and how cold I was and how much my neck hurt and how I forgot to take my melatonin, which is probably why I was so wide awake in the first place.

Somewhere in there I realized that Henry's mom and Henry's dad had to trade roles. And personalities. And if they did, they could each suddenly become real people with real reasons for acting the way they did. And Henry wouldn't need to hate them, he could just struggle to understand them, which is a lot easier to sympathize with as a reader. And will be a lot easier for me to sympathize with down the road when I read back through whatever this book develops into. And a lot easier for me to write, because if I like them they just might do more interesting stuff.

I'm just glad I've figured this all out now, two-thirds of the way through the first draft. Instead of eight months and another draft from now.

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