Staying with Our Characters in Their Present Moments

We’re in the midst of autumn here in central Ohio. It won’t be long before I’ll be pulling up the tomato plants and putting the patio furniture in the basement or the garage. I’ll leave the large table and cover it for winter. In the cold months to come, I’ll stand at a back window and watch snow pile up on that cover. Only a few evergreens will provide a touch of color in the landscaping. But for now, there are still tomatoes to pick and there are hydrangeas still in bloom. In a little while from the time I’m typing this, my wife Cathy and I will go to our favorite breakfast spot, and I won’t think about the work I have to complete. I’ll think only about this sunny day and the beautiful girl across from me at the table. When I was a younger man, I worried about too much, particularly when it came to what might happen in the future. What I’m learning now is what Emily Dickinson pointed out in the first line of Poem 690: “Forever—is composed of Nows—” In other words, I’m learning to live in the present.

Our fictional characters live in their own present times as well, and as writers we should let them. Too often, we leave the present too quickly before it has the chance to reveal something about action or character we never could have predicted. “I just want the best for people,” the father in my story, “The Least You Need to Know,” says as the narrative nears its crisis. “Really, I do.” This is the father who makes his living cleaning up crime scenes, the father who along with his son breaks into houses to clean up messes thinking such action will prevent whatever violence might be about to occur, the father who has come home to find his wife talking with a strange man in their living room.

I could have stopped the scene with the line of dialogue I quote above. After all, it’s a line that reveals a contradictory aspect of the seemingly hardened man we’ve met throughout the story. The scene has done this work of deepening character, but the dramatic action is incomplete. The tension between the various characters hasn’t had its release. In order to complete the dramatic action, I have to stay in the present moment with no thought of the future beyond it. I have to see the actions of the characters, and listen to what they say to one another, and use the details of the setting to force the present moment to its crisis. “You should know something,” the stranger in the father’s house says to him, and the father raises his hand and presses his palm into the air before him, silently communicating what the narrator, the son, makes plain: “I sensed, even then, that a decision was about to be made, but that no one had the courage to make it. It would be years before I would understand that it had something to do with the violence we can do to love, and the will it takes to mend it.” I never would have gotten to that line had I left the present moment while there was still action to dramatize.

To stay in those present moments, both as writers and as people, we have to be willing to pay close attention—to listen and to observe. As writers, we have to be patient. Our characters and their actions have much to show us as long as we stay with them until we sense there’s nothing more to see, nothing more to hear. “Be present in all things and thankful for all things,” Maya Angelou said. Exactly. How else can writers hope to glimpse their characters’ futures if not by paying close attention to what they’re going through in the here-and-now.

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