First, part one of this behind the scenes look at the road to god knows... can be found here. Probably a good idea to start there first.
So, the main story idea I wanted to tackle was mental illness and specifically, how a teen girl struggled to cope with her Mom’s schizophrenia. But I was now convinced that I couldn’t just tell this story. Not only would it not have an ending it would also be really heavy. And I was very worried that I’d lose readers by making it grim, gritty and sad. If I just focused on the illness then the entire plot would build off that. It would be pedantic and heavy – and pretty obvious storytelling, too.
As I chewed this over, I realized I needed something else. Another element to hang my hat on. That “something” also would enable me to have definitive ending. I might not be able to wrap up the Mom’s narrative in a neat little package, but I could end the story with this other element and have an actual thematic conclusion . This felt “right” – which, in any creative endeavor, is about the only thing you can hope for.
With this in mind, though, I needed to figure out what this other storyline would be. Since I was already reaching back into my past to tell the story, it again felt “right” to do the same thing here. I started to think about what helped me escape as a kid and as I let my mind play back over my early teenage years, it didn’t take long to isolate a few ideas.
What’s important to realize here is that I wasn’t a happy kid. I was pretty introverted and pretty lonely. Only child, split family, Mom not well…I tended, like a lot of kids in my place (I think!), to escape into other worlds. Much of this was fiction and TV (shows like Star Trek, comics like the X-Men and Alpha Flight) and I certainly chewed using one of these elements for the plot. But there was this other thing I also escaped into in my early teens and in many ways I thought it might even work better. And that thing was pro wrestling.
So, why wrestling at all? Well, it was something I fell in love with as a kid. The world of drop kicks and pile drivers was larger than life and I liked that a lot. There’s probably all kinds of psychological reasons for this (lonely fat kid looking at the under dog getting over the big bully, that sort of thing) but I certainly wasn’t aware of it. All I knew was that I liked it – and I kept watching it every week. The other thing I knew was that I liked tag teams a lot better than singles wrestlers. There was something about the rhythm of two guys working together to battle two other guys that seemed magical to me. Seeing the Rock ‘n Roll Express doing a double drop kick was pretty nifty – just beautiful stuff that I fell in love with!
Did I believe it? You damn betcha I did! I had no idea that it was all fake. I mean, I had ideas about it, of course, but I didn’t know how it worked. I was a total mark. I had no idea that the wins and losses were all pre-arranged and that the wrestlers all worked together to tell a story (this whole element of pro wrestling, I should add, is known as kayfabe). I didn’t understand any of this and I really didn’t care. I just knew that I liked it. I liked the underdogs, I liked the smaller guys getting over on the bigger, nastier guys and I liked tuning in to see what happened next.
The more I thought about this and remembered, the more it seemed like a good way to go. Could I interweave wrestling into the story? Would it give me the narrative answer I needed? Next time, I’ll get into the specifics of the story elements and how I started weaving the plot.
With the decision to add wrestling as the major subplot of the story, I needed to figure out just how to go ahead and do it. Since the entire tale is a fictionalized autobiography, I was able to really build the plot around a key event that actually happened: going to a wrestling show that was held in Ottawa in the late 80s.
What I had come up with was pretty simple. I knew the main character, the teen girl, was poor. So coming up with enough cash to get a ticket was going to be a problem for her. I also knew that she was pretty much into it alone. She didn’t really share her love of wrestling with anyone else and that meant she’d have to “come out” if she wanted any help gathering money.
That plotting choice actually helped answer another element that needed to be dealt with – friends. I didn’t have a large group of friends as a kid. In many ways, my pool of friends remained pretty constant throughout my teenage years - not that many of 'em. So how would I incorporate this into the fictional narrative? I didn’t want to have to worry about permissions and the like, so the obvious answer was to keep them fictional, too. More to the point, it seemed the best way to go was to create an amalgam. One or two characters that could represent a number of different people instead of trying to different characters. Besides, I didn’t want to tell an ensemble story; I really wanted the story to focus on one main character.
The wrestling angle brought this all into clarity. By having the main character and a close friend (who’s not really into wrestling) be the focus, I’d be able to turn a lot of the plot around the two of ‘em. And I could also use the friendship to help illuminate what was happening between the main character and the Mom. So that gave me a number of things I could use. Bonds of friendship that could help relate the emotion and uncertainty of the story to the reader. A plot point that I could revolve the entire story around and give it an actual conclusion. And, critically, I could still deal with the breakdown of the Mom in a non-simplistic way. I didn’t have to wrap that story point up all nice and tidy-like and sacrifice good storytelling for neat endings.
At this point, I was feeling pretty good with the very loose plot. I still needed to do a lot of work. Fleshing out the characters, figuring out exactly what was happening and how I wanted to tell it, and of course figuring out how to draw the entire thing – but I had solved a lot of the story and character problems I was having.
So, I had a pretty good idea of where the story was going now. Not fleshed out, but I liked that the story had a resolution without having to worry ‘bout resolving the emotional core in a neat bow tie. And, while the wrestling angle might seem quirky to some, it gave the story a very different element than just mental illness. Something completely different – and I felt that was very important to help the story connect with readers.
One of the tricks with writing, though, is that you can have the best plot in the world. The most interesting ideas, the most fascinating twists, and the most captivating ending. But if it’s happening to characters we don’t care about, then the story will be hollow. Readers won’t care and the story won’t work. So at this point, I really had to start fleshing out the characters. Fortunately, I knew quite a bit already. Since much of the plot was autobiographical, I knew that I would be drawing on my own past for the characters. Basically a fictionalized version of myself for the main lead and then fictionalized amalgams for the other key characters.
In some ways, this was the easiest part of the concept design. I had a young girl with no siblings, her Mom and Dad (and I knew already that these parents had been separated for many years), and a strong friend or two to act as major supporting characters. It’s one of those things that grew as the plot grew. I still needed to flesh them out, though, so that I could actually build the narrative around them. I also had to come up with all the sundry elements – names, relations, and all the rest. I felt that I was still pretty lucky at this point (since I was basing many of the characters on my own experiences. And one of them on me personally) so I had a lot to fall back on. But I still need to put those thoughts down on paper so that they’d become “real” people. Real personalities.
A quick aside: some writers have reported that their creations have a tendency to take control of the narrative. They come up with the character and as they’re fleshed out, these creations start to go pull the story in different directions – with the writer almost, like a travel writer, documenting what s/he “sees.” For me, writing isn’t like that at all. I keep a pretty firm grip on the narrative "tiller" – and my characters (and my stories) go where I want them to go.
That said, I still feel you need to know quite a bit about the characters. So with that in mind, here’s what I came up with for the main lead (who, by this point, finally had a name - Marie Levesque) back in the fall of 2004:
"Marie is basically ‘me’ at that age. Kind of a combination of introvert and extrovert. Definitely not a popular kid, picked on by other girls. But she’s finding her way and a little less embarrassed by what she likes (wrestling, for example). She doesn’t talk much about her background or her Mom, though that’ll change as the story goes on.
She’s a kind of Tomboy, at least in the sense that she’s not into real girly things. She definitely likes getting her mind stimulated, so everything from wrestling to sci-fi is fair game. She tends to be very chatty with those she knows really well but around others that she doesn’t know too well (at school, etc…) it’s a different ballgame and she becomes very quiet.
The big thing about Marie is that in many ways she lived in a shell for much of her life. The move to Ottawa was a fairly wrenching experience (though she wasn’t happy in Arnprior, it was still an adjustment from small town to downtown big city), made harder by the fact that she’s going to a school where, for the most part, the kids are quite wealthy. That’s never sat well with her, ‘cuz she’s never been able to afford cool clothes – or honestly, even new ones. The ones that are new still reek of poverty. Her shyness with strange kids combined with her look (definitely not one of the in crowd) has left her picked on. And insecurity is the result. So school becomes a necessary evil. And one she hopes that she can get away from soon.
Her problems at home sorta compound the issue and make it difficult for her to feel happy at the best of times, so she’s kinda grabbed onto things like wrestling with a bit more vigor than she might otherwise have. But the escapism is really important – getting away from the rigmarole of her everyday life for a little while is not a bad thing.
Through it all, though, she’s a fairly optimistic kid. Things might be worse if she was living in a really tough inner city – that could lead her to run with a really bad crowd or get really beat-up. But being introverted and shy (not to mention fearful of strangers) in a decent enough part of town has given her a very good shield. Not great in many ways, but in this case it’s helped her out quite a bit."
These were my early thoughts on Marie. Still required some work, but she was already becoming very distinct in my mind’s eye. Certainly to the point that I could build a story around her!
With Marie roughed out to some extent, I had to do the same with the other major characters in the story. What extent this is done is really up to each writer. How fleshed out do you make so and so? Do you spend pages and pages trying to get things down or do you just aim for the “gist” of that character? By doing a fictionalized autobiography, I had the advantage of knowing a fair amount about the characters right off the bat so I didn’t feel the need to really explore them fully. But I did want to break them down to some degree and get a bit more of a sense of who they were. That is explored fully in part three.