If you’re over the hill at 50, I guess it means you’re still striving for the summit at 46. No, this post is not an adventure about a middle-age meltdown, or a look back at Coulda-Woulda-Shoulda Land, or even a fearful look to the future where bad knees, expensive medical care, and the curmudgeon that I was born to be, will be the topic of the day. Nope. This post is about being in touch with the caveman part of our brain, living in the moment. Right now. That perfect state that every animal and insect—besides us humans—on this earth live in.
Think about it. The hawk gliding in the sky is concerned about 3 things. Eating, procreating, and staying safe at night. A firefly, the same thing. A human? At 46? Paying off the mortgage. Saving for retirement. In these days, personal safety if you watch the news too much. And million, gazillion, other things. Careers. Kids. Parents surviving old age. Eating and procreating are passe for most of us, that part of our existence on cruise control. Living in the moment is difficult at best, almost impossible for our human brains to achieve. But we share that same primal drive to survive with brother hawk and sister firefly, and we rarely pay attention to it.
We should, though. Especially when we are creating characters.
Last week, I urged you to look in your character’s wallet to help define them. This week is a reminder not to forget their DNA, their primal instincts.
I don’t know how many first chapters I have read where the character has so many problems, alcoholism, ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), whatever the disease of the week is, that I’ve put down the book shaking my head. I can’t connect with these screwed up people because they go on and on and on, and I’m wondering how they pay the rent. Character’s have to have flaws, no question, that’s what makes them interesting. But sometimes it feels like the author is saying, “My flaw is bigger and more unique than your flaw.” And that’s a problem. At least for me. If I want to hang out with really screwed up people, I’ll go to my family reunion, thank you very much (Oops, I’m in trouble again, I’m sure).
The mantra is to make your character different—but the same. Give them a challenge to overcome. Make them unique. Give them a “hook”. I am certainly not arguing that this is wrong. I just think it is often overdone, the basic human experience sacrificed for something less universal. And that’s a good way to lose an audience, an editor, or me, the reader.
Rex Stout’s rotund hero, Nero Wolfe, was agoraphobic, but he was still worried about paying the rent. He was still worried about eating—and there is no question that Wolfe liked to eat. Underneath all of Wolfe’s idiosyncrasies, he was just like the rest of us, still battling to survive the daily elements, still trying to put food on the table and a roof over his head. The references to Wolfe’s daily struggles are minimal, but they’re up front, right next to his love of orchids. He left the thoughts of procreating to a younger Archie Goodwin (who obviously noticed a pretty woman when he saw one). But all of the elements of basic survival are in every one of the Nero Wolfe novels. To his credit, Rex Stout created a character who lived in the moment, a human being who did not stray too from the basics even though he lived a privileged existence.
The challenge to creating a compelling character is to make them universal. But how often do we forget to add a cup of primal instincts as part of the recipe? A bi-polar private investigator with a trust fund can still be interesting, can be fully universal. He may have all the money in the world, a guaranteed room over his head, but he still may be afraid of the dark.
Just like any story, when you begin to create a character, start at the beginning, start at the core of human existence—and then go to the Wardrobe Department and Disease Of The Week Department to round them out. Put your character into the moment, figure out how they are struggling to provide for themselves and the ones they love. Make them equal to a hawk or a firefly. Make them someone who has something in common with yourself in your every day life. Male or female, put them in touch with their inner-Neanderthal. Make their basic struggle to survive just as important as their disability, or challenge, or whatever you want to call their ADD or alcoholism. It will make your character real to reader, and to you, the writer…
And now it’s back to the cave for me where there’s a dinosaur steak roasting on the fire…