Girls Before and After

“Cheer up,” S. said. “Dance with me.”

About three months had passed since my mother had died. My cancer-riddled grandmother would be gone a month later. Perhaps I was prone to sudden silences and fits of restlessness. S. and I were in his room. We worked together in the dorm and we were friends.

before getting ready
before getting ready

S. knew I liked to dance, and though I felt silly, I accepted his hand. We danced around his room until I was laughing, and then it was time to get to work.

A few days later I ran into S. at the front desk. “Hi!” I said, checking my mailbox. He crossed his arms over his chest and said, “You take that woman’s studies class, right?”

“Sure,” I said, looking at my mail.

“You take a lot of those women classes.”

I stopped looking at my mail. “Yes. That okay with you?”

“My girlfriend’s never taken those kinds of classes.”

“Oh. Well, good for her,” I said, thinking how I wanted to get to lunch and how he’d react if his girlfriend did take a women’s studies class. “Gotta go.”

A week later, we were at an employee retreat weekend. All of us were in this hotel conference room with paper, magazines, scissors, and glue. We were told to draw lines down the paper to make four sections, and then to cut out magazine pictures and words. Some of the cut outs were the way we saw ourselves and other pictures were the way we saw our coworkers. So, if I saw a picture of, let’s say, a carrot, and I thought of a coworker as healthy or rabbit-like, I would cut that carrot out and give it to my rabbity colleague. Okey-dokey.

S. had avoided me since our dance, but I hadn’t noticed. And while I sat on the floor flipping through magazines and joking with other Resident Assistants, he marched across the room and handed me two cut outs–one of two women holding hands and another of the words women love. “Here,” he said. “You.”

getting ready to leave for the party
getting ready to leave for the party

I glued the two cut outs onto my page and when anyone asked me about them I said with a shrug, “Oh, that’s how S. sees me.” I didn’t have the energy to figure out why.

In fiction, characters often do not see each other clearly. That’s where conflict comes from. Right? But sometimes writers don’t see their characters clearly either. That may not be the conflict you want. Some characters I know immediately. Some hide from me for a long time. Sill others try to reveal themselves but I’m not paying attention or maybe I don’t want to see. Who knows? Maybe I should have my characters cut up magazines too. Ha.

Is there a particular type of character that you aren’t seeing fairly? Someone who shows up again and again but what you want from them isn’t what they want to give?

11 thoughts on “Girls Before and After

  1. Have a problem with keeping my antagonists antagonistic … in life perhaps too open/tend to only look for good in people? In the work perhaps it would be easier and more fun for the character to just let them be hideous but I’m always tempted to justify it somehow. Make a better person of them.

  2. Kate- I have this exact same issue. In my case I think it’s because so much antagonism in my own life has made me shy away from it in my work. As for “Someone who shows up again and again but what you want from them isn’t what they want to give?” you must have been there during my last marriage. It wasn’t until I came to accept that actions speak louder than words that I was able to see that what they gave and what I wanted would never meet.

  3. Sophie, yes, it counts.

    Sherri, overall the project was cool. Maybe you could contrive a reason to make your friends do it too.

    Shelli, I’d be interested in what you think.

    Kate, I think you can humanize your bad guys and make what they do unforgivable (or however you want). Our justification don’t really make us better people, after all. In one novel I have a very bad guy, and though the reader can certainly see how this guy’s father made him into the monster that he is, as soon as I go into the mind of his victims, that becomes much less relevant. It doesn’t lessen the suffering he causes.

    Sarah, perhaps we all have had relationships like that at one time or another–whether romantic, familial, or otherwise.

  4. Tough questions and yet I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to formulate something like a response…

    At the beginning of a college psych class, the professor had us draw — at our seats right there in class — a picture of a person. No one in particular. Not spend a lot of time on it, either, but just draw it. For a (brief) while, years before, I’d imagined myself to be a cartoonist in the making, so I tackled the assignment happily.

    In short, fell right into the guy’s trap.

    Naturally, he said 10 minutes later when we were all “done” that we’d just drawn a picture of ourselves. Some people looked down nervously, wondering how to interpret their sketch of someone of the opposite sex. There were people freaked out that they’d just sketched a person’s head (a failure of directions, IMO). I was mystified by mine. The guy in the drawing had a big cartoon grin, and okay I sorta got that. But for the life of me I couldn’t get over the HANDS. Everything else had a vaguely Charles Barsotti look to it, very simple lines and suggestions of features. But I’d spent almost half the allotted time making the hands look as much like hands as I was able: curving fingers, opposable thumbs, and (not so realistically) disproportionate in size to the rest of the figure.

    Sometimes, in retrospect, I read my stories and think that I’ve over-analyzed some feature(s) of one character or another. Maybe too much back story, dwelling on some event in their past that doesn’t any longer seem to matter much — that kind of thing.

    But then I think about the process of creating those characters. All those customary “My characters tell me their stories” thoughts, y’know? And I realize that characters are often like me in that psych class, doing the equivalent of outlining a person they don’t (ha ha) necessarily know. It’s just up to me to decide — for WHATEVER reason — that a significantly described feature in fact IS significant, or not. But it all reflects something the character unconsciously thought of themselves.

    [pause for hall-of-mirrors effect to pass]

  5. Pamela

    I would give anything to be able to go back and see what I had for that project. I see myself so differently than I did then. I feel I am much more independent. However, when I talk to people they mention that they have always seen me as independent.

    I think the fun of talking to people you haven’t been in touch with for a while, is that you get to see through their eyes the person you were.

    S was being a jerk, like only S could be. I don’t know what I said about it then, but now, I will say S was trying to control women and yell at him a bit.

    I love these pictures. I have often wondered if you still had them. I have such memories about doing them, and I often tell people about them. To me, this is the fun that is Marta!

  6. I think I have the hardest time with seeing my main characters clearly because I put too much of myself into them. They are too close to me so end up being nothing.

    I like the idea of doing a kind of community building group exercise with the characters in my novel. I mean, if ever you want a community to work together towards a common end (a good book) it’s in your novel.

    I ran a women’s group once where we did something like your project, where everyone wrote about who you were to them. And then you got your sheet back and read about how they felt. It was enlightening.

  7. JES, I had a similar experience, but we were told to draw a pig. It seems that how you draw the pig is how you view life.

    Pamela, I wondered if you’d remember that–and recognize S. Sometimes he’d be nice to me and the next be a jerk. Also, I’m relieved you don’t mind the pictures being posted. I often have mixed feelings about putting up pics of people without their permission. Well, I don’t post any truly embarrassing ones!

    rowena, I think pictures might be easier than words–less potentially critical or something. Of course, perhaps more difficult to interpret.

  8. Pamela

    I remember S as mostly being a jerk. He did not have a good opinion of women.

    Post away, talk about me I don’t care! If I ever thought you had not represented me well, I would be convinced you are taking creative license.

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