Posted on June 12, 2012
I spend a lot of time thinking about monsters, building elaborate magical worlds and hammering out the details of just how to get a flying mummy out of marrying a romance-pining gorgon. You'd think I'd want to unload about how to craft a monster that is misunderstood or how to make the magical peril in your stories really pressing and legit. Instead, I'm going the opposite direction. I'm going to tell you how to add mundane, human experiences to your magical scenarios to make the wonder pop in contrast to the nitty-gritty human condition stuff.
A good rule of thumb is to draw from real life to inform your characters. Since my books feature monsters and magical realms, you would think that would present a problem. Not at all. It comes easy to work in little scenes from my experiences. Here's how I did it in two instances.
In TAGALONG, the scene that establishes Dylan as a little weak and pliable was based on what happened in my tenth grade English class. I loved vocabulary and studied for the weekly tests. The girl next to me was very nice to me and soon I was letting her look off my paper. As the weeks followed, more students looked off my paper by osmosis. I can't even remember how many were depending on me, but it was surely more than eight. Anyway, it was an easy scene to write as I had lived it.
It's a different story for those unfortunate students on the receiving end of teasing. Here's how it unfolded in the narrative:
At Clearwood Elementary, both times offered opportunity for the bully in Mr. Brennan's 5th grade class, Mitch Trick, to work over his targets. Of course, Mitch wasn't really the class bully. That would denote he hassled his classmates in general. But no, Mitch had sour eyes for only one classmate, a squirrelly pipsqueak (his words) named Dylan.
Mitch kept a mental list he was constantly updating of Dylan's annoying characteristics:
Dylan Thadmussel always hunched over his desk and never looked up.
Dylan Thadmussel always talked to others in rushed spurts as if his conversation were a race he was anxious to get to the end of.
Dylan Thadmussel always babbled about magical beasts and UFOs to anyone who faked interest.
Dylan Thadmussel always knew every answer on the weekly vocabulary test.
The last characteristic is what was on the mind of Mitch Trick as he devoured his burrito topped with five squirt packets of ketchup.
For the past seven weeks, Dylan Thadmussel had shared his answers down "The Chain." Mr. Brennan had arranged his classroom into three rows of ten desks each. Dylan sat at the last desk on the left in the second row. Eight other students separated him from Mitch and were members of "The Chain" that left their papers open to the wandering eyes of the person to the right. This system had allowed Mitch to score 100% on the past seven vocabulary tests.
Abby Evans, who sat to the right of Dylan, was the first link in the chain. She in turn shared her cribbed answers with Trevor Harris, who also honored his role in the chain. And down the row Dylan's stolen answers went until they arrived at their ultimate destination, the vocabulary test of Mitch Trick.
"The Chain" had worked smoothly for seven weeks. Until today.
Abby Evans watched Mitch woof down his last bite of ketchup-coated burrito. She handed him a napkin to erase the ketchup surrounding his lips. Instead, Mitch took the napkin and used it to wipe the large globs of ketchup that had managed to slide free from the burrito and seek freedom on his lunch tray. He licked the napkin with dramatic slowness.
"I love me some Cat-sup," Mitch declared, mispronouncing the word in a deliberate attempt to be different.
Josh Reagan, another member of "The Chain" who sat next to Mitch in class, at lunch and on the bus, dusted off his usual comment with respect to Mitch's table manners, "Nasty, nasty."
Abby ignored the scene as much as she could, playing with her scrunchies as long as possible before she launched into an excuse she had been saving since third period. "I don't know why he covered his paper this morning. I did my whole being extra nice to him on Friday thing and everything. I even listened to one of his stupid facts about Bigfoot or whatever during morning work. I tried to nudge him, but he gave me such a mean look that I lost my nerve."
Josh suggested, "We need to come up with some signals for when this happens again. I mean, I thought everything was fine on my end. I copied Marvin's answers as usual. You mean to tell me they were actually Marvin's answers and not Dylan's? I feel like such a victim." Josh nudged his head upward in thought. "We couldn't do any desk tapping or anything because Mr. B. isn't that clueless."
"We don't need signals," said Mitch, as he squashed his napkin into the tray compartment housing his uneaten applesauce.
"But signals would be kinda cool. I mean... " Josh's voice trailed off as he got a look at Mitch's glare.
"We don't need signals because this isn't gonna happen again. 'The Chain' needs fixing, and I'm gonna fix it at recess." Mitch wrung his hands for dramatic effect as he watched Dylan rise from his seat and rush his Styrofoam tray over to the recycling bin. Mitch stared at the uncooperative link until the boy turned around. Their eyes locked.
Even from across the crowded cafeteria, Dylan Thadmussel knew today's recess was going to be the worst.
But I didn't limit myself to my own experiences. My wife tore down her teacher's periodic table as she walked behind it to get to her seat. I decided that would be a great character moment to put my high school protagonists through before he was faced even steeper challenges like fending off hordes of zombies in TURNCOATS. Here's how that scene translated to the printed page:
He was late for Chemistry. Mr. Dawson would have his hide. Bad enough he had missed his afterschool requiz opportunity yesterday. Now, thanks to his mother guilting him into a ride to school where she tried to uncover what was on his mind, he was late. She had taken the longer route in hopes of him opening up, which he was not going to do and now he had a tardy slip for his troubles.
He slipped down the side hall, hoping to enter the class behind his teacher. The periodic table was pulled down, which would allow him to enter without drawing attention to himself. His lab partner, Darin Stine, saw him lingering in the doorway.
Mr. Dawson was hitting his stride. "Today, you'll be using a reagent that is a catalyst. Anyone care to refresh us on what's so unique about a catalyst?"
Darin raised his hand. Nathan knew his partner didn't have the answer. He was a decent student, but not one to light any fires in any of the core subjects. Darin's passion was centered on all things guitar. He touted he was in a garage band named Bulkhead, an outright cumbersome band name, but Nathan knew his band practiced in a sun room. It didn't have the same cache, so Darin glossed over his actual practice venue whenever he boasted about his band's jam sessions. The image of fledging musicians rocking it out in a many-windowed room loaded down with brightly-colored potted plants would certainly evaporate Bulkhead's street cred.
Mr. Dawson said, "Yes, Darin?"
"It starts the reaction," he said.
With his teacher's attention on his lab partner, Nathan streaked toward the periodic table, intent on sliding into class behind the large pull-down display. If successful, his teacher might not make a big deal of his lateness.
Mr. Dawson replied, "Somewhat, but what's so unique about it?"
Nathan heard Mindy Newman's voice. "It doesn't get consumed in the reaction, sir. It doesn't alter its basic nature and yet still spurs a change."
Nathan couldn't ask for better timing. Mindy sat in the back, on the other side of the room from his destination. He'd most certainly avoid his teacher's gaze. A quick backstage scamper, and he'd be able to plop down next to his partner.
As he hurried past the periodic table, he brushed against it. He lurched forward, thinking nothing of the brief contact with the upright elements. If only he had treated his stealthy endeavor with more finesse.
A stark tearing followed in his wake. He plowed forward, not connecting the jarring sound with his trajectory.
It was only when Nathan heard the unified gasps from his classmates that he halted. He swiveled around to see his bookbag had caught hold of the periodic table and neatly ripped a five-foot gash in it. The lower half of the table fluttered free from his bookbag and drooped awkwardly to the ground, exposing him to a good portion of his classmates' shocked faces.
Mr. Dawson's face, red and puffy, appeared in the gap and peeked at the perpetrator. "It would appear a malcontent has tried to take out the elements from Rubidium to," – he fiddled with the end of the tear which was midway through, – "Copper."
Mr. Dawson disappeared behind the intact portion of the display. Nathan heard his teacher open a drawer and rummage about. He returned with a large roll of duct tape. He handed Nathan the roll through the gap. "Please reattach this and we'll talk about your swath of destruction, among other things, after class."
Nathan dropped his bookbag and yanked off a decent strip of tape. He jiggered the grounded portion of the table back into position and secured the tape from behind. He was thankful for the break from his classmates' stares and restrained laughter.
Satisfied the tape was secure and that he could not further delay his reappearance, he shuffled to his seat, dragging his bookbag along. No sense risking it grabbing hold of anything else. No telling what he might do if he sauntered past a drying rack of beakers or test tubes. Periodic tables and glassware beware, the bull in the china shop was on the loose.
He slumped into his seat, sending Darin a thank-you glance for attempting to distract their teacher and listened to his teacher explain the lab they were going to be up to their eyeballs in.
All he could think of was the dead girl and how her intrusion in his life had set him on a reckless course. His life had been a mounting heap of lies and avoidances of the truth. Heck, even his attempt to sneak into class under the nose of Mr. Dawson, a feat that would normally be child's play, he had somehow managed to screw up. The dead girl was a distraction.
He smirked, thinking back to the class topic he had stalled with his flubbed covert op. They had been talking about reactants. Trina was definitely a catalyst, but as to where the reaction would go, Nathan had not the slightest idea. For some reason, he feared he, let alone the world at large, would be consumed in the process.
He forced thoughts of a zombie apocalypse out of his mind and opened his lab book, intent to not mess up his next encounter with volatile substances. Taking down a periodic table was one thing. He needed a clear head if he was to survive the next forty minutes unscathed.
His partner sat back and strummed an invisible guitar as Nathan went to fetch the needed compounds.
A little bow to the real dilemmas in your life can deepen your fantasy stories and allow the reader to connect with your characters. Don't be afraid to delve into your own mishaps and setbacks by putting them in as part of your characters' own experiences. It's how I made a gargoyle afraid of heights so sympathetic to the reader. And, honestly, I think it's another aspect of writing that keeps a writer motivated and challenged.