Monday, March 22, 2010

Life is a Subway

A subway car is a microcosm of life. Its riders are a random sampling of society, the characters in that scene from life's novel. Look at this picture. Who are these people? What would happen if a disaster struck, if the train jumped its tracks the moment after this picture was snapped? The answer depends on the personalities of the people thrown together and what they carry with them in terms of priorities and their life experiences.

I'm a virgin novelist, as many of you know. I may be approaching this project backwards, but it's occurred to me that assembling my first cast of characters is a little like walking onto a subway train and picking a handful of people. As I get to know the strangers I've invited into my project, I'm reminded of a great truth in life: We're all struggling down our life paths.

Nobody has it easy in life. You can take five people, for example, and in the group have:

  • A successful Marketing Rep
  • A gorgeous fitness model
  • A creative storyteller
  • A well-known entertainer
  • A Martha Stewart-style homemaker

But within that same group and in shuffled order, you also have:

  • A person paralyzed by fear of failure
  • A woman who kicked her cheating husband out but is afraid to divorce him and truly be on her own
  • A drug addict, in and out of rehap
  • A blind person
  • A first-time mother transitioning to the new life of parenthood

If you were sitting on a subway train with these five people, you probably couldn't guess which description from each list went with what person (unless New Mom had Baby with her!).

As I flesh out the characters for my novel, I appreciate the importance of acknowledging all the successes and failures with which a character is dealing, within the timeframe of the novel. How a person acts and reacts in a scene is dependent on the combination of their conflicts and what they've experienced in life. I'm enjoying exploring what those things are and deciding how they will impact the plot of the novel.

What about you? When you start a project, are you more apt to know the personalities you need and build characters around them? Or are you like me and create characters who then reveal themselves in ways you didn't anticipate, so that you have to adapt the plot to accomodate them?