Ever have a conversation with one of your characters?

It was two minutes to ten in the morning. I was sitting in a diner caddy corner to the high school, waiting just as impatiently as Gatsby waited for Daisy to arrive at Nick’s house that fateful day. I was not waiting to rekindle a lost love; rather I was waiting to meet my character and get his take on how he should be portrayed in my novel. I was fairly certain he was not going to show when at ten o’clock precisely, he came through the door. Koda came through and I made time stop a moment so I could register what he looked like.

Of course, a part of me knows what he looks like. That part of me, of course, cannot capture his appearance for those who would read my book. Therefore, I needed a moment to process this mind’s image. He was in mid-stride when I stopped time and getting ready to duck under the top of the screen door due to his height. At 6’4″, Koda Rainmaker was an anomaly here, taller than most adults, but it seemed like the teenagers were growing like weeds these days and many of them would be ducking under low doorways. His long hair fell over his shoulders and down his back, reaching almost to his waist. I smiled as I remembered that he was quite pissed off when the Marines shaved his head in boot camp ten years’ prior. He took great pride in his hair and no wonder: It was beautiful, black and straight. His face was chiseled from terra cotta colored marble, it seemed. High cheekbones accentuated his seriousness. His nose was straight and not too thin. His eyes were chocolate brown and serious too. His lashes were long; they would make most women jealous. Why did men always have such nice eyelashes? His brows were nicely shaped, too. He cared for his appearance. Finally, the chin emphasized his pride in himself, coupled with a strong jaw and wide neck from years of lifting weights. Even ten years later, Koda did PT every day. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Semper Fi.

I started time again and he came through the door. He straightened his shoulders automatically and stopped. He looked around the dining area for me. Of course, he would not recognize me right away, but that was only because he was a figment of my imagination. His eyes fell upon me and I gasped as the serious man smiled widely. His smile revealed the boy inside the man, the light-hearted person who covered himself for most with an air of superiority. I smiled back instinctively and that is when he started walking again. As he came toward me, his hand was outstretched to take mine. I shook his hand when he was closer and then he took a seat at the table.

“Heather, it’s nice to meet you,” he said. Marcia, the waitress and owner of the diner, approached and put a large mug of coffee in front of him. He thanked her and she smiled at him as a mother would smile at her son. She turned to me.

“I hope you write him well,” she told me in a maternal way. “He’s a good boy. I have known him all his life. I used to change his diapers.” Koda’s face turned a darker shade of terra cotta.

“Marcia!” he chided her. She laughed and walked away.

“I hope I write you well, also,” I said. Marcia called to me from the counter, “You want another cup of coffee, Heather?” I nodded and said thank you.

“Well, so far you seem to be doing okay,” he said and smiled. “Terra cotta marble, huh? I never thought of it that way.” He touched his face without thinking about it, then pulled his hand away.

I raised my eyebrows. How did he know that? Well, I’ve never seen this exercise done before. There were bound to be surprises.

“I don’t know if I am capturing you correctly. I want you to have a life,” I told him.

“I do have a life.”

“But I don’t want your life to be solely based on your model,” I explained. I took a sip of the coffee. It was so good, better than any coffee I’ve ever had, even in Paris.

“The model you are referring to is Douglas, right?” Douglas is my husband. I nodded.

“Well, he is very different from me, isn’t he? How is he a model?”

“I think it’s the love that you feel for Njka that is most important…and your inner strength. He’s one of the strongest people I have ever met, mostly selfless and yet finds himself and his happiness important. The rest of it, I made up.”

“Then he isn’t really a model, then, but someone you want to honor. You want to write me in a way that shows what a special man he is, how he is your soul mate and that you love him completely,” Koda said as Marcia put a muffin in front of him. It was so cute how she knew what he wanted. As Marcia walked away, he said to me, “You’re doing that, too, you know. You’re telling us what I want. Get it?”

“See, that’s Doug right there,” I said. “He always picks up on things that I am not consciously aware of.”

“I thought for a minute you were going to rephrase that sentence so you don’t end with a preposition,” he told me with that kid-smile again.

“Eh, fuck it.” I did want to go back and fix the sentence.

He laughed then, leaning back in his chair.

When he finished laughing, he leaned back in toward me. “Heather, I am who you want me to be. What do you want me to be?”

“You probably already know, so why don’t you tell me?”

“You think that Njka needs a source of strength and realism. You think that she is too optimistic and she needs me to rein her in at times. That’s true. She also goes overboard on just about everything, putting her heart and soul into things that others would not work so hard to accomplish. You think that’s a flaw. I think that’s a gift. So, you think that’s a gift, too, because I am a part of you just as much as Njka is. You think, though, that people will think it’s a flaw, so you are writing me as a character that wants to correct that … and yet, I’m also supposed to cherish it. That puts me in a tough position, you know. I’m constantly struggling with how I love her optimism and caring versus how I want to protect her from burning herself out. Basically, you’re putting me in a role that models balance for Njka, while in fact I just want to love her.”

“That’s what you want? Just to love her? Should I rewrite things so you aren’t the voice of reason?”

“What I want is what you want. Go back to Doug for a minute. What does he want most for you?”

“To be happy.”

“Exactly. If he was a model for me and I am meant to honor him, wouldn’t I just want Njka to be happy?” He took a bite of his muffin and chewed thoughtfully.

“Yes.”

“So far, you have made me get Njka to see that she needs to care for her finances and for herself, because otherwise she will not be able to help her students – which is most important to her professionally. I’m seeing into the future, preparing for hard times. I’m almost trying to protect her from herself. That isn’t the easiest thing to do, you know. She’s impulsive.”

“You think Njka is me, don’t you?” I took another sip of coffee, then ripped off a piece of bagel and shoved it in my mouth. I chewed as he started to speak again.

“Of course she is. Sure, she has a lousy ex-husband and you don’t. You have a beautiful son and she doesn’t. Sure, her mother is, well, misguided in her opinions of Native Americans and reservations and your mom isn’t. She has a brother and you don’t. You’re right when you say that her back story isn’t your back story in many respects. But she is you. She’s the person you want to be, a teacher who advocates for social justice instead of high test scores.” He leaned back in his seat, satisfied in his assessment.

“Let’s get back to you. Do you like the character you are?”

“Yes, very much. I especially like how you are putting more of my thoughts into your latest version of things. I think it helps.”

“It helps people understand you?”

“It helps make our relationship more real. You are moving toward an omniscient point of view, which I think is good. This novel isn’t just about Njka anymore; this novel is about forging a new life and involves more than just the main character.”

“Hmmm.”

“Now, would you really say ‘hmmm’? You’re not a ‘hmmm’ person.” I shook my head.

“It’s something authors write.”

“But is it what you would write?”

“No.”

“Then say what you want to say instead of what you think people want to hear.”

“That’s it, isn’t it? That’s it!” Koda smiled as the thought dawned on me, that kid-smile again. “I’m spending too much time writing what I think others want to hear.”

“You’re really hedging on Peter, you know. Peter should be an antagonist – there should be more of a struggle. You know who Peter is; write him the way you want to write him. I think you’re on the right track with me. You need to write him better, and Samantha. I think you’re doing well with Aliah, too. I would say Njka, Peter, and Samantha are characters you need to work on. You need to admit to yourself that Njka is you. Write your experiences in the classroom the way you want to write them. Don’t write what you think others want to hear. This is your visualization exercise. Create your world and then let it guide you.”

“You’re right. It will be hard, but you’re right.”

“It’s what Doug would tell you, if you let him read this thing.” We both smiled kid-smiles then and finished our breakfast in companionable silence.

 

 

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