When I discovered a character: two vignettes

Written by William Campbell

Here are two vignettes of the first time I discovered the hero in the book I am writing. If you are seeing this post first, I write about the process of discovering this character in a previous post. Here I am sharing one of my earliest drafts in order to introduce all of you to this character. Please take a moment to read the previous post as it provides good context.

To save you more reading than you want, I’m going to write what came before this scene. The character I was writing about at the time, named Nate, had just been caught playing on the roof by his mother. He was using a yard stick as a pretend sword and had accidentally broken it. Here is he walking downstairs, knowing that he’s going to have to own up to some form of punishment. As a HUGE HUGE HUGE qualifier – this is “crappy first draft” material. Like legitimately bad. And to embrace vulnerability and the spirit of this exercise, I’m not editing out misspelling, poor grammar, etc. To be honest, when I reread this, I have NO idea why I drew these characters this way or why I wrote what I did. But I wanted you all to see the moment when I first discovered Alice.

The rest of the afternoon Nate avoided going downstairs, scared his mother would dream up some form of punishment for him.  Her favorites were extra chores that he had already done the day before: doing an extra load of dishes just so he could put them away again; somehow noticing a patch of grass left unmowed so he would have to go over it again with the Lawn Mower; or the worst, taking out all of the books in their library in order to “dust them” and putting them all back in order by a different arrangement than before – if it was by author’s last name then it would be by first name, if by title then it would be by genre.

Rearranging the books was the worst because his parents seemed to collect books by the week, his mother being an english teacher and his father being an avid reader, particularly of boring historical books that he had some delusion Nate and his sister enjoyed hearing recited back to them.  In all actuality, “library” was a generous term for their family’s book collection.  True, one room in the basement was dedicated to most of the books, but each room in the house had at least one (if not many) book shelves, each room corresponding to some kind of genre.  Apparently, art and art history belonged in the living room while books about submarines belonged in the bathroom.  He guessed it did seem somewhat appropriate to read about long tubular boats submerging into the water while he was going “number two” on the toilet.  His favorite rearrangement of those books was in order of what looked more like poop to what looked more like a boat, an arrangement his parents never really caught to his smug delight.

For the rest of the afternoon Nate flipped through books and magazines in his room, picking out pictures that inspired storylines or different looking creatures and characters.  By the time dinner came around he was starving and finally made his way downstairs.  As per usual for that time of day, he could hear the sound of his father talking to his mother about some issue or another, usually about something that happened with one of the people helping him on the farm.  His father liked to hire guys at their church that were looking for a little extra work but as of late they weren’t sticking around  for very long, some family issue coming up, getting another job, or just disappearing all together without any warning.

When Nate walked into the kitchen he found his little sister, Alice, coloring in one of her numerous coloring books.  He hated her stupid coloring books because she would leave her crayons everywhere so that he’d accidentally step on them and break them.  Even though she was the one to leave them out, inevitably it would always turn around to being his fault.  He walked around and sat down next to her at the table, while his Dad just looked in his direction and nodded.  As predicted, he was talking about Shawn, the high schooler who was currently helping him walk the soybean fields for weeds and rogue corn.

“I don’t know Mandy, I’m trying to give this kid a chance, but he just kept walking right past a bunch of velvet leaf today!”

His mother just nodded while stirring a pot of cheesy noodles.  Nate could smell sour kraut meaning tonight was German night, always with a side of cheesy noodles.

It was one of his favorites.

While his Dad kept [talking], he looked at his sister’s current project: a page full of butterflies escaping a meadow.  Instead of coloring them orange, blue, or pink, though, like normal kids would, she was coloring them black and dark purple, and she had turned the sun into a moon.  Instead of making the trees green like any other person, she colored them an odd shade of red that made it look like the branches were bleeding instead of growing leaves.  “You’re so weird Alice.”

“And that’s coming from the boy who uses kitchen utensils to play with imaginary friends,” she muttered back without glancing away from her picture.

“At least I have a real imagination, not like your coloring books where you have to color in the lines.”  He had once overheard a girl in art class say that true artists colored outside the lines.  He wasn’t fully sure what she had meant by that, but he wanted to irritate Alice and thought it might work.  She just shrugged her shoulders and kept coloring.

“Maybe Nate’s getting old enough to help you with field work,” his mother’s voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Huh?”  Nate responded as he looked up at his parents, confused and anxious about what he thought he heard.  Here it began, the creative punishment he was avoiding all afternoon.

Nate went on to begrudgingly help his Dad with some fieldwork. After taking care of the chores/punishment, he returned to his room to dive into an idea for a story that had popped into his head. At the end, you will see Alice return and begin to pull my attention as the writer away from Nate and toward her.

He got to his room and pulled his writing journal out of his desk.  Mrs. Reynolds always said that the best writers keep journals for all of their ideas, so he needed to make sure he kept up with it.  He had pages and pages of story ideas and dialogue written down in the journal, some he really liked while others he had forgotten about.

Nate flipped to his current ideas page that was about half full with tiny scribbles rotating around in a spiral away from the center.  Picking up where he left off, he wrote, “Someone has a pet cat and finds out the cat can speak.  They then realize that the cat and all its cat friends have a little community and they are at war with some other group on the farm.”  He wasn’t sure what kind of other animal the cats should be fighting with so he started a list.  “Could be: Dogs (too obvious), Hogs, Cows, Cats on the neighboring farm (I like this idea), or maybe something magical like pixies or fairies.”  That idea works great, he thought.  The cats are fighting pixies or fairies on the farm, protecting the human owners from them because only the cats can see magical creatures.  He remembered hearing on some Egypt special on TV or reading in history class that the ancient egyptians thought cats had special powers or could talk to gods or something along those lines.

Nate got up from his desk and started to pace as he was playing with the story.  It could mean that the cats were fighting the pixies and realized they were losing the battle, he thought, so one of them decided to break all the rules and reveal to the humans that they could speak, something that got him cast out of the cat kingdom.  The cat kingdom could be more than just the small group that lived on that particular farm but could have kings and queens.  Calico’s would be queens because they’re the prettiest, he thought.  But the little boy that the cat speaks to believes the pet cat and decides to help the cat kingdom.  “I have to write this down,” he said out loud.

“Talking to yourself again?” The voice of his irritating sister butted through his thoughts.  She peaked her head around the door jam into his room.  It was obvious she’d been hiding between the door and the wall so she could see through the crack left by the hinge without him noticing her.

“Nosing around again?” Nate replied snidely.

“I don’t have to nose around to hear you talking to yourself.  You playing with imaginary friends again like a little kid?”

You’re a little kid, Alice.  You’re only 9.”

“Yeah and you’re almost 13.  You’re old enough to take showers in PE,” she countered.  Alice walked farther into his room and climbed onto his bed with her odd deliberate movements; she never moved all that quickly.  She put a hand out, then slowly placed her knee down as if taking care to notice each exact movement before she finally sat down cross-legged on his bed and looked up at him.  Strands of her dark hair fell in front of her eyes, making it look like she was wearing a veil.

“What are you doing?”  He asked.

“Coming to talk to my brother.  Is there something wrong with that?”

“You’re coming to be a pest is what you’re doing…pest.  Now leave.”

“I don’t have to if I don’t want to.  You don’t own this room, Mom and Dad do.  You’ll have to get them to kick me out and if you do, I’ll just tell them about the music player you have in your backpack,” she finished with a satisfied look of victory on her face.  How did she find out about his music player, he thought.  That’s when he realized he’d left his backpack downstairs; he NEVER left his backpack downstairs.  He must not have thought about it because he was in such a hurry to write down his story idea.  He knew he had to bring his backpack upstairs because Alice would snoop through everything of his, so he learned he’d have to hide everything in his room or other secret places.  It made him wonder what other things she’d found and his eyes darted to his dresser.  Surely she didn’t think to look there, he hoped.

“Don’t worry, Nathaniel.  I’m not going to tell Mom.”

“Then what do you want?” Nate asked.

“Can’t a little sister just want to spend time with her big brother?”  She looked at him innocently.  It scared him how smart she was.  Since kindergarten she had been placed in the gifted and talented classes and could talk at a really early age.  Sometimes she knew things and used words he didn’t understand, but he usually just passed it off like she made it up.  When she looked at him like that, he knew she was up to something

“Not you, no.  What do you want?”

Hmmph.  She crossed her arms and looked away for a bit.  “Well,…

“Well…” she paused and pursed her lips.  “Mom has put me into swimming lessons,” she finally blurted out and crossed her arms, as if it were an affront to some personal character.

“And…?” He replied.

“And…?  That’s all you can say brother?”

Genuinely confused, “Alice, I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.  What’s your problem?”

“My problem?  Nate, I can’t swim.”

Still confused, “Isn’t that the point?  I took swimming lessons for years.  It’s about time you started.”

“But you’re the athletic one in our family Nathaniel.  You’ve always been active and quick to easy at sports.  I’m…well…you know…  I’m not like you.”

He did know.  She was…well, without a better term she was awkward.  He’d watched her at the track and field days at the end of the school year when all the kids had to participate in some race or competition.  Alice had been in the 100 meter dash, simple enough for anybody, but it was quite an odd experience watching her.  When she got ready at the starting line, unlike the other girls who would put one foot in front and get ready to run, she stood completely sideways and instead.  At the time he wasn’t sure if it was because she didn’t have enough room to stand shoulder to shoulder, but she had plenty of space.  When the race started she galloped sideways for a few steps before actually moving to face forward and then, she flailed her arms as if she were pulling her self through the air instead of running.  Awkward was the only appropriate way to put it.  He could only imagine what swimming might be like for Alice.  He imagined her taking big strokes with each arm at the same time while doing an odd form of a bicycle kick with her legs and realized her fear.

“Ok, I see your point.  But what do you want me to do about it?”

Alice smiled. “Good. I’ve got a plan.”

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