Labor Day is almost here. I know because I’m making plans to make our annul trek to Wyoming where a group of us gather from across the U.S. to spend the weekend together. Then before you know it Thanksgiving and Christmas will be here. My younger sister works on her presents year round. I don’t, which means the holidays are gonna come barreling down the chute aiming for that soft spot right between my eyes at the bridge of my nose. If you're not ready or you forget to duck, they'll knock you flat on your tush. Then while you're down, Uncle Elmo and Aunt Tilly and all the other relatives walk right over your twitching body and start pointing out that there's an inch of dust on the mantel and the gravy's lumpy and ...
Oh, sorry. Got slightly off subject.
Actually, thoughts of the holidays made me think of family and relationships -- which, of course, brought up the twists and turns of the relationships between characters. You can spend days developing a backstory for a character, weeks deciding how a character should look, even months researching the profession or flaw for a character, but that character only really comes alive when he or she encounters another character. That's when love, hate, intrigue, conflict, desire, comedy -- your story -- develops.
That's the way it is in real life. Aunt Tilly comes over to help get the ham glazed. No problem. Uncle Elmo arrives with his fried turkey. Look out. Trouble's on the way. Things are going to get exciting or funny or even tragic. Put two or more people together in a story and things will change. Think of it as a scientific law of writing.
Characters have chemistry. They have things in common -- they're attracted to each other. They have differing personalities -- they're in conflict. How Uncle Elmo reacts to your greeting may be quite different from how he greets Aunt Tilly. What Aunt Tilly does and says could vary depending on whether you dropped the ham or whether Uncle Elmo did the deed.
When the police arrive to break up the fight and disperse the crowd of gawkers, you've got even more personalities to deal with. How does Uncle Elmo react to these authority figures? What do you do when Aunt Tilly takes down the officer's badge number and writes it in the dust on the mantel? What does the policeman think of the raging food fight? What does he do when a candied yam with toasted marshmallows smacks him in the forehead?
And when it's all over and you and your family are gathered around the festive holiday table, who has been changed by the encounter? In what way? Who not only has mashed potatoes clotted in his or her hair, but also has a mashed ego? Who has dust on her finger and a renewed sense of joy due to a upcoming date with a handsome man in uniform? Who assures the whimpering dog that there will never ever be another family gathering at this house?
It's that old scientific law of writing: There's chemistry, good or bad, between characters. The people in your story come alive when they interact with others. They change, some in small ways, others by leaps and bounds, because of those encounters. Although you may develop a character in a vacuum, he can't live in one. Your characters and plot may be the meat of your book, but it's the blending of the personalities that make up the gravy -- lumps and all.
Disclaimer: The characters in this column were all fictional. Any similarity to my family members is totally coincidental. Really.
5 weeks ago