Monday, March 17, 2008

Writing the marrow of a character

Could you tell something about me from this picture of my aunt and mother (right) taken in 1959? You might make a couple accurate guesses for sure. Because we all know there are some traits that run in the family - and the Irish have a great saying about this:

What's in the marrow is hard to take out of the bone.

This sentiment really speaks to me. Its simple truth – that what’s deep inside us cannot be easily removed – is moving on so many levels. The essence of who we are is imprinted upon us early on. Life has the ability to bring out or beat down our own marrow – often to the detriment of ourselves and others.

When I charted the course of Janeology, I really wanted to understand a character from her marrow. And what better way to understand someone than from her family? (I mean, if I learned your mother liked to sew and her mother responded to EVERY piece of mail she received – junk or not – that might explain why you give me presents I adore that you’ve made yourself.)

So before outlining my story, I went first to my pedigree chart software. I wanted to understand the time this woman Jane was born and also, the era in which her mother was born. Turns out the way her mother was raised had a huge and tragic impact on young Jane and what she subsequently thought about men.

I have to tell you, this is a very satisfying way to begin a story. For me, it became the whole story, the centerpiece of the story, making Janeology something of a novel-in-stories, showing eight of Jane’s ancestors from present-day to the 1800s. Some writing tomes advise that you must know the brand of laundry detergent your character would choose. Or the brand of cigarettes she smoked in her youth. But just knowing these facts isn’t as important as knowing why she chose them. Because a lot of these small choices were probably influenced by her mother. (I know I use Tide to this day for no other reason than it was present my whole life.)

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