Character Qualities – I

In my school talks, I often ask the kids what type of stories they like: lots of action, or interesting characters?  Most authors tend to write either plot-driven or character-driven stories, though they may rightly strive for pleasing balance of each.  I’m a character-driven writer.  The story doesn’t really start moving until I know the characters well enough to let them take over the story (even though they don’t, really—the author is always in charge!).  Getting to know them takes time, but one exercise I’ve found helpful is

The Interview

That is, about halfway into the first draft, I  figuratively sit everybody down and ask them a set of  questions, which they must answer directly, as if they themselves were writing or speaking.  Some details of their answers are already in the manuscript; others will never find a place in the story.  To answer these questions, I have to use what I’ve already decided about them, what I’ve come to know, and what I might be able to feel my way toward.  Something always turns up that surprises me!

During a visit this week with fifth-graders at Daniel Wright Junior High, I asked which interview they’d like to read from Somebody in This Bus Is Going to Be Famous.   Several characters got votes, but the majority went to

CHARLES BENDER THOMPSON

Bender

(You didn’t know that was his full name, did you?  He’s very honored to be picked.  Not to mention very surprised.)

Thank you, Daniel Wright fifth-graders, for choosing my first posted interview!

What’s your favorite color?

Puke.  (Stupid question)

What do you think is your strongest quality?

Survival, baby.

In what area of your life would you like to improve?

What’s to improve?

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

Oh, come on.  Everybody knows that.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

What friends?

Okay, if I had any, they would say I’m darkly humorous, deeply mysterious and a kick-butt Call of Duty player.  I know that’s more than three words.  I can count.

What do others not understand about you?

Everything!  That’s the story of my life, man: tragically misunderstood.

Okay, if you insist . . .

Everybody assumes I hate my brother.  Or at least that I resent my brother.  Only I don’t.  Resent, maybe a little.  But I definitely don’t hate him.  The truth is, I’m proud of him.  Who wouldn’t be?  And there was a time, I’m told, when he was proud of me.  My mom says he’d always wanted a little brother, and when I finally showed up it was like every Christmas and birthday present rolled up in one.  He was eight then.  Mom says he was the best big brother any kid could ever hope for (like, big surprise).  She was working part-time at the real estate office, and Dad had just accepted the claims-adjuster job, so they were busy.  Thorn was like Dad, junior.  He did everything—feeding, changing, burping—once he even got up at night to walk the floor with me when I was sick (Mom says).  He did all his other stuff, too: top grades, sports, and all, but when he was at home he was all mine.  I’d cry for him when he wasn’t around, and go into paradoxes (is that the word?  Doesn’t look right) of joy when he showed up, because he’d piggy-back me all over the neighborhood and read to me and push me on the swings and stuff.  It’s not just Mom who says so.  We moved to Hidden Acres when I was two, and all the neighbors tell me (and tell me and tell me) that they’d never seen a big brother like Thorn.  I wish I could remember.  But I guess, in some way I do.

Because I don’t hate him.  I love him, probably more than anybody.  And I guess he loves me too but he outgrew me.

He made me laugh, he made me mad.  And sometimes—oh man, I’ve never said this to anybody—he comes close to making me cry.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll either be hiking through Tibet or working on a shrimp boat out of Louisiana.  What other options are there? Legal, I mean.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

My happiest moment was probably one I can’t remember.

What’s your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is fear itself!

No seriously, my greatest fear is probably finding out who I really am.  I’ve been coasting along as anti-Thorn but that’s not necessarily me.  My grandma—the one who traveled, and died a couple years ago—she was the only one in my family who didn’t look at me through my big brother, and I kinda think that if she’d lived longer she might have had a clue.  It might’ve helped, you know?  A little positive reinforcement.  I’ll find out sooner or later.  But what if I don’t like me?

If you died tomorrow, what would you ideal epitaph be?

Here lies Thorn Thompson’s brother.

Good thing I’m not dying tomorrow, huh?

Who’s your favorite character in fiction?  If you could ask them these questions (or any others you think might be interesting), what would they say?

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