This past weekend, I attended the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, and during a session on monologue-writing, which ended up being more generally about principles of characterization, we were asked to write short descriptions of the people represented by faces that the presenter showed on the screen. Then we had to pick our favorite, sketch a picture of them, and write a monologue using beginning, middle, and ending lines given to us by the presenter.
I drew this guy:
I said he has one Hispanic parent and one white parent, he is approaching 30, and he is passively annoyed that everyone considers him a harmless teddy bear. His name is Manny, but as I was writing his monologue, in which he gets defensive about the fact that he illustrates comic books for a living and hardly ever leaves his apartment, I realized that he was basically a biracial version, with a somewhat different childhood trauma, of the character I’m always writing about–usually named Sam.
When I started writing about this character, I was in high school, and so was he. He was called Sparky Melloy back then, but his real name was Samuel. Then, as now, he was blond-haired, chubby, quiet, self-effacing, and sometimes funny. Back then, he was obsessed with Dr. Pepper and often wore baseball caps backward. Now, he prefers Coke (his tastes have matured) and only occasionally wears a baseball cap, forward.
There was a period a few years ago during which I departed a bit from this general profile. The guy I wrote about during this time shared many of Sparky/Sam’s features, but he was a musician with dark curly hair–he was Jewish, sometimes–who was both older (because I was older too) and angrier than his previous manifestations. Sometimes he had a fraternal twin brother. This guy was different enough from Sparky Melloy that I gave him a different name, Adrian. But the basic character was still there.
At some point, I got rid of the fraternal twin brother, who was a jerk anyway, but I gave Sam (for that is now his permanent name) a best friend, a curly-haired, easily annoyed musician named Adrian. But this Adrian is a skinny redhead, and I totally jettisoned the Jewish part, mainly because I have no idea how to write from a Jewish perspective.
Here’s what I know about Sam: He writes and illustrates comic books for a living and is quite successful. He’s single and thinks he probably always will be, mainly because he doesn’t think any woman will ever be attracted to a “fat mental patient” like him. (He spent one night in a psych ward, 10 years ago, after he attempted suicide and Adrian saved his life.) He grew up with a severely depressed mother, a father who couldn’t talk about emotions, and no siblings. Sam himself is on medication for depression, but he’s not a depressing person to be around. He’s creative, kind, sometimes surprisingly witty, and usually a calming influence on people around him. Life is hard for him, but he doesn’t want to die anymore. And, in the story I’m writing right now, he’s surviving the zombie apocalypse.
Generally, when we see a character, theme, or symbol recurring again and again in an author’s writing, we call it a motif. I think Sam may be an obsession. I don’t know if he represents me, the person I want to be, or the person I don’t want to be–maybe all of the above. I kind of have a crush on him. I know, it’s weird. But those of you who are writers–or who at least make up stories in your head–do you know what I mean? Please share.