A Work in Progress, Part 3
In this installment of our series about a collaborative writing process, the team creates characters.This is an occasional column about writing fiction, from the genesis of an idea to the development of a creative process, the joys and challenges of writing, and, finally, self-publishing. It is written in real time: the novel is still in development.
To recap parts 1 and 2: yours truly has an idea for a new novel about a world resembling our world in which men no longer exist. He feels he can’t write it because of his gender. With the help of a group of female collaborators, a project takes shape, but the subject matter is so personally challenging that one member of the team drops out. The team must decide whether and how to continue.
After losing a member of our writing group to personal challenges raised by the subject matter, we each must decide whether to continue. We were five, and now we are four. We regroup and decide to see where the process takes us, but I can feel we are more thoughtful in our discussions.
We have done some basic worldbuilding and are moving on to defining the characters who will people our postmale world. We haven’t decided on a central protagonist yet; perhaps one will emerge or perhaps it will be a story with many voices. Each member of the team is asked to create a character and flesh her out with the help of several prompts:
Her history: where and how did she grow up? What kind of family, town, social structure did she come from? Where did she go to school? Where has she worked?
What are her strengths, flaws, gifts, weaknesses?
What does she want to achieve, now and later in life?
What is most precious to her? What would hurt her to lose?
Assume the events in this novel could move her from A to B personally, emotionally, physically. What is A and what is B, and what would it take to do it?
The thinking takes longer than I expect, but each team member comes back with characters that blow me away and make my own look one-dimensional. They’ve thought about them from the inside out and done a great job of imagining them in a future postmale world. Some partial examples:
“My character is 55 years old. She identifies as a woman but is not in a relationship. She has had a few lovers and tried different arrangements—there are groups that preserve the old ways... constructs of relationships a bit like the binary categorizations of the old world. There are also people who live outside of these constructs. My character is one of those. She has never birthed children and never wanted to. She has assisted at lots of births and raised many kids as part of the collective. But she never really felt the maternal urge herself.”
“My character is Italian. Her passion was directed toward the Community Cucina where the whole neighborhood grew, harvested, prepared, cooked, shared, learned, and ate together. She was skilled at gathering what was available and making something fabulous from it. She is now a manager and juggles the daily activities and schedules and recipes and rosters, as well as the research and teaching side. She still loves trying new things and practicing new ways of growing, new recipes, and new ways of teaching others.”
“My character loved the community she grew up in and knew that people adored her family too. She was originally an only child. [Her mother] became good friends with another woman, who supported her because she already had a child. They were already familiar with each other’s kids and a part of each other’s lives when they became a couple (platonic or romantic... not sure yet). Another parent in the community was struggling with the birth of her child and [the second woman] served as a midwife. This was this voluntary mother’s fourth child and she was physically exhausted and mentally drained. She is diagnosed with postpartum depression.... [My character’s mothers] adopt this child, so now she has two siblings and is the middle child.”
The character sketches that emerge have a texture and a depth I could not have created alone.
We have our world. We have ideas about the people we will build the story around. Now we need the plot. This is where I come in, and suddenly I realize I’ve been so consumed by the character- and worldbuilding that I haven’t gotten anywhere near building that simple, compelling premise that unites all these amazing protagonists, let alone story arcs, subplots, and their resolutions!
The project team is aiming to have Post Male ready for publication in 2022. Tim Slee’s Taking Tom Murray Home will be released in the U.S. in July 2022 by HarperCollins.