Three times now I’ve been asked to write sequels to books I hadn’t planned. Now that I’m just finishing up a sequel for “Invisible Ellen” which I really hadn’t originally planned, I realize, once again, that there is almost always more to say. Returning to characters and story lines and fleshing them out, having the chance to take them in a new direction is a real gift. There are two kinds of sequels, those that forward the characters and their lives, and those where the characters remain the same, but the mystery or plot line changes.
Sounds like life. Sometimes, for instance in jobs or friendships, we continue to personally grow and change, giving ourselves up to new opportunities and hopefully becoming better-rounded individuals (character development). Other times, say family holidays, the characters remain the same, but the situations and dramas alter, change, rock, and resettle. (plot device)
Let me give you a life example. Over a year ago, I mentioned in a blog that my ex wasn’t paying for college. His new wife attacked me heartily, writing a blog about me entitled, “Jealously”, the theme of which is that my entire life is based on my debilitating awe of her. What I’m supposed to be jealous of, I’m still not sure, but you have to understand and forgive that that’s how narcissists are, they honestly think your life is about them, not you. They don’t see past themselves. The entire thing would have been an amusing bit of fiction if not for the fact that it deeply hurt my daughters and my husband. But I kept telling them that we all knew the truth and nothing else is real. But it was such an unreal, unthinking act from a woman who should have had their best interest at heart that, in trying to understand it, I learned so much, enriching my mental list of extreme characters.
Ultimately we let it pass, I encouraged my girls to forgive, and we moved on. Now comes the sequel. My husband and I pay for college. I helped my daughter hunt for colleges, went to visit them, filled out the stacks of paperwork, moved her in, moved her out. I talk her down off the ledge when work is overwhelming, cuddle and spoil her when she desperately needs R&R, was there to share the hugs and tears at the end of her first year, moved her into her new apartment, and I loved every second. Now here’s the kicker, I have always had the most amazing relationship with my daughter but helping her through the college-slash-growing experience has deepened and rounded and smoothed our love until I stand overwhelmed and silenced by blessing and gratitude. In short, I support my girls and my life is richer for it. I have no anger or residual animosity from that silly attack because, simply, I am happy. I do what I want because I love to do it and it is exactly what I want to do. I adore sharing all that I have. What else is there? What else is it for?
I am the lucky one. That’s the sequel.
It’s the same in writing. There must be dilemmas and challenges to discomfit your characters, evil-hearted people to throw spanners in the path, sociopaths who damage without conscious, it’s sometimes as difficult to write as it is to live, but then, as writers, we can pull our characters out of these situations, elevate them, make them victorious, or sometimes, just accept life as it is and be happy. Just like in life.
My character Ellen is not a pretty girl. She is not a particularly talented one. But she is an exceptional human being, by the miracle of her very survival. She finds joy in watching the small dramas and kindnesses of others, in doing small favors for people who may never even know she exists.
And she’s all right with that.
So when you write, be it your book or your life, remember that ultimately, it’s about you. No matter if people like your book, or lie about you in public media, it doesn’t matter. What matters, and what will make you happy, is doing what you do because it’s right for you. If you ever find yourself doing something to hurt someone else, think again, it won’t work. Their happiness is not based on you.
But here’s the greatest thing. No matter what happens in your life, you can use it to make a better story. No matter how frightened, or angry or sad you may be if you are an artist, in writing, acting, or in life, it’s all fodder. Or, well, humorously put, all the BS is fertilizer, and your story, your characters, and your day to day personality grow from the choices you make about how to deal with it.
Want richer characters? Delve into why someone resents you so much. (hint, it’s about their lacking) Want stronger plot lines? Examine the motives behind indignant rage. (hint, they feel no control.) It’s the small things that affect the big picture. And in the end, the big picture is made up of the small stuff. Take a step back and really look at it.
As writers we have to get into the heads of so many characters, if we don’t find some truth, something real, then those people will not ring true, they will be shallow and uninteresting. So explore your own motives, and then sit back, disconnect, and explore. Examine others, but mostly, examine yourself.
Don’t judge, that leads to preachy writing, and nobody enjoys that. (Bless my editors for scaling me back there!) Just understand it, justify it, even the bad behavior. You can’t write or act ‘bad guys’ if you don’t understand their motivations. If you can stand back and observe it, like Ellen does, you won’t have to take it personally to write it personally.
And remember, there’s always a sequel.
Shari, May 15th, 2014