I’ve reached the age, sixty, when I sometimes meet people I knew a long time ago in my youth, and I can see the boys or girls they once were before time had their way with them. I know the same holds true for me. Somewhere inside this “mature” body is the boy who once had long, thick, wavy hair, the boy who could jump high enough to dunk a basketball (if only my hands had been large enough to palm the ball), the boy before age took a good deal of that hair away and taught him lessons about the gravity of middle age, the boy before the creases and traumas life brings to us all, the boy before he’d been tested.
When we write fiction, we have to test our characters. We have to put pressure on them. We have to let life have its way with them. Usually, a character steps onto the page already in the midst of some sort of instability. His or her world is tilting. Lives are about to change. The writer, as much as it may pain him or her, must help this process along—this aging process, if you will. The writer has to press down on his or her character to see what lies beneath the surface of their everyday come and go.
But the characters themselves have to have a hand in their own fates. Remember what Henry James said about character: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” When I begin a piece of fiction, I like to find out what a character wants, fears, wishes, etc. Then it’s my job to put that character in a situation that puts pressure on him or her. One of my former writing teachers, Bill Harrison, has a story, “Under the House,” about a plumber whose greatest fear is having to crawl under a customer’s house to check out a plumbing issue. Of course, the story opens with a call that requires him to do just that. Charles Baxter has a story that opens with a man walking down the street on a windy day. A piece of paper blows up and sticks to his leg. It’s a hand drawn map of the downtown area, if I’m remembering correctly, and one of the buildings is singled out as, “The next building I plan to bomb.” What will the main character do with this? The essence of his character will determine his actions, and those actions, if the pressure increases, will reveal more about the type of man he really is.
Oh, we have to be ruthless with the worlds we create in a piece of fiction. Even if the plots are quiet ones, we have to find those pressure points that may come from seemingly innocent actions but lead to dire consequences. In my novel, The Bright Forever, Gilley, the brother of Katie, tells their father she didn’t take back her library books as she was supposed to have done that day. That action starts a sequence of events that leads to irrevocable changes for this family. As much as we want to grant our characters grace, we first have to set them down a trail of trouble. We have to test them to find out who they really are. At the end of the story or novel, they should be like those childhood friends we encounter in our more mature years. Perhaps there are glimpses of the people they once were, but we should know that they can never wholly be those people again because their own actions and the consequences that result have changed them forever.