Posts Tagged ‘death’

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Character Lessons From an Innkeeper

October 4, 2016

Someone I knew, although not all that well, died recently. In total, I had no more than a dozen conversations with Richard, but his words, his presence, and his energy influenced me. A loss is hard enough when you know someone well, but when you lose someone who plays a small but impactful role in your life, it can be confusing and certainly jarring.

When I heard Richard had died, I was sad; sad for him, his family, and his friends. I was sad for the small hole in my life but also sad for other strangers, who’d known him only marginally, but would miss his presence.

Richard worked at an old mountain inn, which was almost always empty and not at all fancy. I went there to write because the town was quiet, I knew no one, and could get a lot of work done in a short period of time. I had no distractions, except one: Richard.

Sometimes I’d arrive at the hotel last minute, because it wasn’t the kind of place one needed a reservation. Richard would wave his hands in the air, greeting me like a long-lost celebrity. He liked to talk, but I had deadlines and work to get done. Eventually, I learned to plan intentional evening writing breaks to listen to Richard’s stories. I never regretted it.

At first, Richard’s tall tales made me scratch my head. Were they really true? But as I got to know him, I realized they were. Richard lived in the middle of nowhere, but he’d been places. As he poked the logs crackling in the fireplace, he’d tell me about his mother, growing up on a farm, and picking apples. He shared incredible adventures about his time in the military. He told me about quinoa growth in South America and the complicated legalities of water rights. He was a lobbyist with a strong political bent. Richard was not a gossip but knew everyone in town and beyond.

Once, I sat silently as Richard spent an hour arguing with an older man who had opposing political views. They remained civil, agreeing to disagree. Later, I mentioned how it was nice, rare these days, but nice they respected each other’s views. Richard answered in his usual, enthusiastic voice, “Why get angry when someone disagrees with you? If we all thought the same way, life would be big time boring.” He was right, of course. If we all had the same politics, the same religion, and the same interests, life would be ‘big time boring.’

From what I gathered, Richard’s time was anything but boring, but I didn’t realize how significantly his stories made me think about life. Every time I left town, a piece of him found its way into my writing and into my world. Not only did Richard help me realize the importance of taking time to talk and cultivate unforeseen relationships, but he also taught me something about character development; a necessary piece of writing.

As a fiction writer, I use a variety of tools to create believable characters. The enneagram, character sketches, psychology tests, and archetypal profiles all help me build the people in my manuscripts. There are times I want to cheat and make it easier for myself by not doing the needed work to deepen a character. But when I do, the characters fall flat. By living his life fully and deeply, Richard reminded me to make characters complex, rich with detail, and unexpected. A complex character can make or break a story. I think Richard felt that way about life—you make it or break it by the kind of world you build.

I’ll miss Richard, but I don’t regret the time I took to ask a few questions and listen to his stories. He lived a large life. So should we all.

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Kill Your Darlings

October 28, 2012

Skeletons. Shriveled pumpkin vines. Grim reaper masks. Halloween has arrived.

Fall is a time for death. As morbid as it might sound, dying represents a powerful part of life’s natural cycle. The reality is that without death, there would be no change, no regrowth, and no fresh beginnings. How is this related to writing, you ask? Kill your darlings! It’s a long-held phrase in the writing world, and one not to take lightly.

All authors write prolific passages, esoteric phrases, lines of wisdom and earnest meanings. But really? Cut them. A reader wants to be led down a path but not told what to think. As valuable as your words may seem to you, they may not be all that valuable for the reader. Once a writer is able to cut their words, the writing gets better. It opens the possibility of new, better ideas. And if you must, cut and paste the perfect passage to a file. You can open it up and see those little darlings anytime your heart desires.