Sometimes it’s best to start a story with your character. Sometimes, you think, when you’re having a tough time with plot and syntax and all that 101 junk, it’s easiest to start with your protagonist’s bones, adding then muscle and fat and all the good stuff, blood and tears and snot, building the body from the ground up. It’s what God did, right? Right.
Your character is a young man. A disaffected young man, a pale young man with sunken eyes and a black stare, a handsome disaffected young man who one day tells his shitty boss he’s had enough of his—No, hang on, though, you’re a young man; everyone’d make fun of you in class. Well, they wouldn’t say anything. No one says anything mean in a workshop, really. But they’d all be thinking it. Guy who can’t come up with his own stuff signs up for a fiction workshop, what kind of narcissistic ‘On the Road’-wannabe bullshit—Even especially Beverly Lays, whose opinion you value so much. A woman. Your protagonist is a young woman. Slim-hipped and willowy and blond, with eyes like stars and lips full and—No. No, no no no no, this is embarrassing, you are embarrassed of yourself right now, thank God no one else is around and omniscient enough to see what’s going through your head. And how boring, to have some kind of Aryan princess-cheerleader as your protagonist, when it’d just come off as voyeuristic and unimaginative and totally sexist, despite the totally honest attempt, through casting a female protagonist, to maybe understand a struggle you don’t identify with, maybe? You don’t know. Not willowy and blond, then. Not beautiful. Well, maybe pretty. You can’t help imagining a facial prototype that’s pretty, at least—it’s just where your mind goes. But not a total knockout. Maybe she’s got a snaggletooth. Maybe she’s the kind of girl who’s really shy in high school, and is actually really beautiful, only she’s so shy no one really looks at her, and also she wears her hair down so no one can see her face, on account of she’s self-conscious about the snaggletooth? Maybe she covers her mouth when she laughs, does kind of a little hidden-giggle deal, that whatever love interest she ends up with finds super-adorable. Maybe it’s the source of her Conflict. The snaggletooth is.
But so back to the bones: she’s very thin. All shy girls are thin. All non-traditionally pretty girls (i.e., girls with Conflict + eventual love interest) are thin. In fact, it’s kind of an essential part of a non-traditional, or ‘alternative’ girl’s makeup that they be very thin, almost unhealthily so. Hips slender and jutting, knees knobby, fingers crooked, veins like traced seawater beneath long pale forearms. She can’t be blond, that’s been established. Blond is too much. Blond is—it’s not your fault there are stereotypes. Blond says GOLDEN GIRL, FAME, POWER, LUST, etc. etc. Brunette? There are too many brunettes. Everyone and their mother has brown hair, seems like. Your girl is not like everyone. Your girl has pale red hair that falls straight and smooth to her ribcage and ripples when she turns her head. An oval face, something Danish about the mouth and forehead. Eyes wide-spaced but not doe-like by any means, just normal wide-spaced eyes, grayish and in a certain light almost clear. Maybe a snaggletooth isn’t enough. God knows you wouldn’t be traumatized by a snaggletooth. A snaggletooth quite frankly would be the very least of your problems, physical-appearance-wise. There is the matter of the psoriasis, first off, and the scoliosis—the serious hunchbackish kind, not the kind Viv Malmgren had in high school that just made her walk with a sort of vertical undulation. And your body—geez, you had work to do, if you were ever going to get that V thing around your pelvis girls supposedly liked. Or maybe better to start with the bottle-cap glasses and subsequent sweat-rash on the bridge of your nose. The oversized blackheads on your T-zone. The chin cysts. The unhandsomely deep-set eyes and overhanging brow. The sunken chest and bloated abdomen, all wrong, like a torso turned upside down and reattached. You’re not thinking about you right now. It seems essential that your character have a problem, either within or outside of herself, that will eventually be the source of her Conflict and the object of the story’s Resolution.
A snaggletooth isn’t enough. A peg leg? Nah. Best to stay away from physical disabilities, you think. Too obvious. Maybe your protagonist has an eating disorder. But is that too common-garden a problem? You can name like ten people who have eating disorders off the top of your head, including old Craig Potenkis, your high-school wrestling buddy, poor old Craig and his ever-present Dixie cup that functioned as spittoon. This one time Craig asked if you wanted to see who could lose more water weight in a week for an upcoming tournament, you or him, and you were all, uh, OK Craig, like thanks anyway. Pour one out for Craig, old buddy. Rats, you shouldn’t be drinking. Not that you have a problem because that’s ridiculous, you’re a college student, it’s what college students do. But it’s bad for morale. Also this draft is due in like two hours and Professor Howard isn’t going to take any more of your shit, especially after the last story, with all the alleged ‘white supremacy subtext,’ which really? You didn’t even notice? So thanks a lot to Prof. Howard, it’s not like you were already the most popular kid in the class, and then he had to go and—What time is it? Nine-thirty? Ten? Christ, it’s ten twenty-five. Time to get back to work. Eating disorders are passé. Anxiety doubly passé. Depression, oh my God, triply passé. Schizophrenia you know nothing about. PTSD you don’t really get. And that’s pretty much the extent of your awareness. So maybe no mental disorder.
Maybe the Conflict is an outer Conflict. Maybe your protagonist, she’s in this relationship, right? With like this abusive guy? Who works at a bar, or a construction site, or something? And she’s pregnant. Oh man, she’s super-pregnant. Well, not super-pregnant—she’s not showing yet. She’s still in high school. No, college. No, high school—you’re in college, that’d be weird, talking about a girl your age who might be in the same situation one of your very classmates is in. Though it seems unlikely any of the workshop gals would date a bartender/construction worker. They seemed to go for creative types who smoked cigarettes and played the mandolin. Beverly Lays’ boyfriend, for example, played the mandolin. Maybe the abusive guy is not a construction worker, after all. Maybe he’s a barista in a coffee shop who looks totally innocent at first glance: innocent tortoiseshell glasses, innocent rustic flannel with the sleeves rolled up halfway, innocent SurvivalStrap bracelet from time in Peace Corps, innocent corduroy jeans, innocent clean-shaven jawline à la Bev’s boyfriend. The kind of barista who says Try a biscotti with that stupid hip-barista drawl. The Neapolitan biscotti are super-rad. Once he gets home though. You imagine a brief exchange between the boyfriend and your protagonist that ends with your protagonist huddled in the kitchen, hair pooling redly on the kitchen table, crying, her slight frame shaking as though in a strong breeze. Shaking like wind chimes in a strong breeze. There, you’ve got a metaphor. You feel almost angry as you think about this scenario. The boyfriend—what an asshole, Jesus, coming home and yelling at his girlfriend, who’s been hiding her pregnancy from him for God’s sake, hiding it not out of malice or distrust but because she doesn’t want him to worry, she’s borrowed money from her friend in college to pay for the operation but doesn’t know if she wants to go through with it, her family being Catholic and her own views being conflicted and all—and as a high school student at that, not even eighteen and she’s got to deal with her verbally and psychologically abusive boyfriend on top of everything—You want to shake this guy for being such an asshole. No, you want to smash his face in. If anyone treats your protagonist like that—This is good; your character’s real enough that you care about her. She’s got some substance. And you’ve got some semblance of a plot.
And you’ve got this Jägermeister Grant Bechmann gave you after you wrote his summary of ‘All The King’s Men’ for his 20th-century lit class. A celebratory drink. Down it goes. For some reason, all of a sudden you feel like crying. For some reason you are frustrated. You feel there is still so much you do not know. Does she laugh loudly or quietly, your protagonist? What phrases does she use in her everyday speech? What movies does she like? What makes her cry? What makes her tick? It’s not part of your story anymore. You feel like you’re breathing into a CPR dummy. How are events in her life processed and made fungible in her head, as memories and ideas? Is she self-aware? Does she bite her nails? Does she think about what it’d be like to have woken up in a different life, a life less fraught with meaning and less rich in symbolism, a life unexamined and insignificant, a life more like your own? Another drink. Whoops, that’s the end of it. Thanks, Grant, thanks for nothing, half a lousy bottle for a fucking six-page summary of the most boring book you’ve ever—Okay, it’s fine, you’ve got a plot, sort of, you have a Conflict, and the Resolution usually figures itself out. You’ve just got to get writing. Rats, it’s eleven-thirteen. Forty-seven minutes for five pages? Easy. All’s you need is a great first sentence, the kind of first sentence that’ll really hit Prof. Howard in the gut. She looked out the window. Fuck. She gazed out through the window, and—Fuck! Okay. You just need a minute to take a step back from the story. Breathe. Who are you anyhow to be writing about a seventeen-year-old girl with an abusive boyfriend and an unwanted pregnancy? You’re a pimply college kid with Coke-bottle glasses, hunchbacked and arachnoid and dreaming of Beverly Lays, cursing her flannelled barista-boyfriend under hateful fetid breath. And Beverly Lays—shit, Bev hasn’t looked at you once in class, except for last week during the white-supremacy story incident, which was not exactly an ideal context for first eye-contact, not to mention her eyebrows were doing a very judgmental thing right then that could have had to do with something else, but probably didn’t. Are you a voyeur? Is that what this is? Spiritual voyeurism? Is that repulsive? Are you repulsive in spirit as well as body? You don’t think you could bear that. In body it’s all right, that’s—you can’t really do anything about the cysts and the hunchback, etc., but if there’s some kind of character perversion— Enough.
You turn back to your computer. The little blinking cursor and blank document.
It feels like you’re on the verge of something big here. The story’s there, you can feel it humming under the surface of the page. You are so full of things, things you have to tell people, feelings they need to feel, that they need to feel in order for you to feel. Because now it’s too late, you need to become your character; building and observing aren’t enough. You think you love her like you love yourself, only slant, somehow. So how to become this woman, this young woman whose college applications are half-done and jumbled, who can never remember how to spell restaurant, whose long hair she has often dreamed about cutting off at the chin, who gazes out the window now with her gray eyes made clear by the bright afternoon sunlight, her hand floating near but not quite touching her stomach, not wanting to think about what’s inside, what’s hidden.