exploring my characters’ pasts

This is going to be an arcane and self-indulgent post that probably only one or two people who read my blog will actually care about. There, you’ve been warned. I may share this in my writing group, though, since some of them might care about it. I have decided to use this post to explore an idea I had the other day regarding my fictional work in progress, “Sam’s Town”–the zombie apocalypse story I have mentioned a number of times on my blog. Originally, Sam was going to be this lonely soul who never got a girlfriend and died at the end of the story. Now, not only does Sam survive, but there’s also Ramona, this “brilliant and startling” (his words) woman who is into him, which he doesn’t understand because he thinks he’s an affable sidekick at best. And now, after this thing I’m about to share, it seems that he may have a history of seemingly out-of-his-league women falling in love with him. It sounds wildly improbable, and it also sounds like a cliche. But as I’m finding that people who read about Sam usually come to love him, it makes sense to me that he would also be lovable (and not just to his parents and friends) within the world of the story.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Here’s what happened: In one of the Facebook writing groups I’m in, an administrator shared a picture of a pretty young woman with stylish hair and clothes, sitting in front of wallpaper with a tortuous yellow pattern on it (this so distracted me with thoughts of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s haunting short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper” that for a while I couldn’t think of anything original to write), and lobbed some character development questions at us. This is what I finally wrote in response:

You guys are all so good at politically complex fantasy, dystopian, and historical stories. I’m going with plain old contemporary realism.

This is Charlotte (a nod to the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper” 😁). She is the most popular girl in school, but not a mean queen bee—everyone likes her, even teachers. She is smart, poised, and articulate, and she knows what she wants out of life. Well, that last part isn’t true. She has no idea what she wants—only what others expect of her.

She is hiding the fact that she really hates herself most of the time. She hates that she always has to perform. She hates her body, and she is bulimic. This is an open secret among her group of friends—most of them are bulimic too—but she’s hiding the fact that she doesn’t want to do that to herself anymore. (So are all of her friends, actually.)

She is also hiding the fact that she likes the boy who sits in front of her in English. He is quiet and terribly awkward, and his goal in life seems to be to disappear. But Charlotte sees him. She hasn’t told her friends because they wouldn’t understand. They call him Ghost Boy. (And no, he’s not an actual ghost—contemporary realism, you guys. His real name is Peter, by the way.) And she can’t tell him because he would think she was just making fun of him. So she just keeps playing her role. THE END (for now)

Almost immediately after I wrote that–actually, maybe while I was still writing it–it occurred to me that this Peter fellow sounds an awful lot like my character Sam (now in his early 30s) as he describes his teenage self. The disappointing interpretation of this is that I only know how to write one male character, over and over, with slight variations. The more cheerful interpretation is that this is Sam and I need to incorporate this into his backstory. I had already come up with a vaguely outlined character named Becky Olson, whom Sam had liked in high school and who might show up again (not as a zombie) in my vaguely planned sequel, but this so-called Charlotte is quite a bit different from Becky, who was supposed to be sweet and quiet and sort of a background type like Sam.

It would be interesting and perhaps vindicating for my Sam fans if the adult Charlotte (also not a zombie) confessed her teenage feelings for Sam, but would it be realistic? Even if she did like Sam back then, would she remember all these years later? Is it a bit corny and idealistic for all these attractive, put-together women to be falling in love with shlubby, semi-reclusive Sam? I think the answers to those questions are probably no, no, and yes, and yet–I can’t help imagining a flashback scene in which Charlotte goes (with her parents, or some friends, or a date) to Clemenza’s, the restaurant where Sam works, and they strike up this awkward, “oh, you’re in my English class” conversation (even though each knows perfectly well who the other is), and even though Sam is just a busboy, he gets her some cannoli in a takeout box, and he rambles on to her about all the ingredients and how good the cannoli is at Clemenza’s and how he’s been practicing at home and he can almost make it like the chefs here do. And she still remembers all these years later.

I’m almost equally torn between gushing and gagging at what I just wrote. If you’ve read this far, let me know what you think.

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