Tuesday, February 8, 2011

When Characters Argue Back - an Excerpt from my novel "Provenance"

My writer friends agree that once you start writing a novel the characters take on a life of their own. In Provenance I actually had an argument with a character. I needed Fiona to be a bit once sided. She needed to be a nasty drunk and she didn't want to be quite as nasty as I needed her to be. As she came through I would find her saying things that were out of character for what she needed to be. It is quite possible that she would have been a better character if I had made her more well rounded, but she would utterly have failed in what I needed her to be. I would let her have her say and then I would edit out the nice bits.

What interested me in developing this character is that she is very much like the mother that a teenager might describe if they truly dislike a parent. Very one sided. There was a discussion about that over "Mommy Dearest" the truly nasty biography of Joan Crawford written by her daughter Christina. When Faye Dunaway developed the role in the movie she brought some understanding of the difficulties Crawford herself was facing and softened the character making her much more human than her daughter saw her.

Provenance has a single focus on Fiona. It does not go into the struggles she has in communicating with her daughter. She is bitter and mean and filled with superstition that obviously must have come down through the generations. It was interesting to experience her wrestling with me to make her nicer and to explain some of her behaviors.

Excerpt from Provenance:

Fiona was raging drunk.

"God gave me a hard life," she slurred at Danielle. "Brought me nothin' but pain and sorrow. Brought me a mealy mouth little, goodie girl, lost me the son I wanted. God killed my man..."

"It's okay, Mommy," Danielle comforted, stroking her mother's head.

"Be good and careful of your man, Danielle. After you're twenty, men don't look at you any more. You only get one chance to be young and beautiful. Look at me. All my beauty gone, like my man."

"You're beautiful, Mommy," Danielle knew the risk of talking, but being quiet held equal risk if Fiona was fishing for a compliment.

"Shut up, stupid little bitch. What do you know?" Fiona marched to the refrigerator and rummaged for the beer.

Danielle was afraid. She knew what came next. Next came the beatings. But sooner or later Mommy would fall asleep. Then it would be safe for Danielle to take care of her.

Fiona bellowed with rage and moved to slap her daughter, the slender child moved out of the way and Fiona fell striking her head on the corner of a table. She didn't get up. Urine fouled her dress. Danielle got a towel from the bathroom, removed her mother's underwear and wiped her clean. Urine burned the skin. Even the skin of an adult would show signs of diaper rash if it wasn't cleaned soon enough. Danielle had learned that the hard way.

Next Danielle cleaned the floor. She got a pillow and a blanket from the hall linen closet and made her mother comfortable. Finally, she moved around the living room straightening the furniture and Fiona's knickknacks. Fiona would be sick in the morning. She didn't need to wake up to a mess.

Her duties done, Danielle went to her own room. The room was spotlessly clean and ordered. Everything had a place and everything was in its place. She took out her schoolbooks. It was late, but Fiona had been awake until now and her condition had required Danielle's uninterrupted vigilance.

Sighing, Danielle began her studies, losing herself in the numbers on the page. Mathematics was such an orderly, disciplined subject. Mathematics brought her peace. She was tired, but it wouldn't do to come to school with homework unfinished. What would she say as an explanation? "So sorry, my mother was falling down drunk again last night and I couldn't study?” No, no one must know what went on with Fiona.

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