Thursday, March 27, 2014

No One Is Coming to Clean Off My Desk

On the night table: March Violets (Philip Kerr)

I guess Will Gardner won’t be sweeping the clutter off my desk in a spectacular gesture of jealous rage after all. 

I’m going to miss that fantasy.

And God knows, I’m going to miss Josh Charles. 

Maybe I should have issued a SPOILER ALERT, but I can’t imagine that anyone who’s a fan of The Good Wife still hasn't watched Sunday’s episode or is still completely unaware of the shocked, horrified and furious response that accompanied his departure. I got my hair colored Tuesday (shock, that blond isn't natural), and my stylist and I talked about nothing else for two hours.

Before Sunday night, I'd been focusing my attention elsewhere, on some first class procrastinating about planning for my meeting tonight with members of a writers group at my local library. Most of them are new writers. Many of them aren't writing mysteries. Many of them probably don’t even read mysteries.

So instead of planning, I was obsessing. Come September, I’ll have four novels published. Just four. Who am I to impart wisdom? If I were wiser, I would have begun writing before I started to lose my nouns.

And then Will died, reminding me with a punch to the solar plexus how attached we get to characters.

In visual media, the character creation is collaborative; for Will, it required the considerable skills of the show’s writers and the actor. Novel-writing is generally not. Not unless you’re so famous that you have uncredited co-authors, or you consider a collaboration you and your internal Little Editor, who tells you that whatever you just wrote is 1) trite, 2) overblown, 3) illogical.

The novelist has to come up with not only the words, but also the way they're performed: The cadence of the dialog and the accompanying behaviors that evoke that character. Heck, we even have to supply the costumes.

Mostly we learn about character by doing it wrong. When we write our first books, we often cram every tragic flaw and misery we can think of into our characters, or load our protag up with enough backstory to grind the action to a halt every other page. Or we convince ourselves we’re being spare when what we have is a roomful of dull people who all sound alike. Or that a ‘wacky’ woman is the same as charming.

Gradually we begin to understand what all those books on how to create characters were talking about. We want to write real life, but real life and fiction are very, very different. No character comes into a book without a purpose. No bit of dialogue is meaningless. Conflict is cherished. And unless you’re writing a ‘hero versus nature’ novel, that conflict has to come from the characters.

So, I think we’ll talk a bit about characters tonight. About how and why readers become attached to them. We enjoy a clever plot, but the novel's world is made real by its characters.

I’m feeling better about my meeting. 

But there's still too much clutter on my desk, Will.

Sheila York
Copyright 2014

Note: If you never watch The Good Wife, there was a terrific scene last season in which Will got so upset with Alicia — his former lover — that he raked everything off the top of her desk in one glorious motion. 


  1. You could take a box of Kleenex to the meeting and just all talk about Will. Personally I'm devastated by his loss. (Also I think they did the makeup wrong for when he was lying dead on the gurney. Dead people aren't that color unless the mortician has had at them.)

  2. I'm wearing black, for sure. The Kleenex is a very good idea. I'm still stunned. I think his death will be a good way to launch a discussion about visceral reactions readers have to characters and situations. About the makeup .... My instinct said that given the injury, yeah, he probably wasn't pale enough, though heroic measures -- like transfusions and pumping -- can give a very temporary color. That's what the producers would probably say. But I think they just wanted him to look like himself for that last time.

  3. I feel so left out. My tv watching is all on Netflix, where I can control the timing. Then, last Monday, even NPR broadcast an obituary of Will. I had no idea who they were talking about. I don't think my superannuated condition has destroyed my libido. In fact, I am sure it hasn't, but those smirky expressions (see above) on most actors, male and female (see any performance by Sandra Bullock) just repel me. That is what discourages me from watching most of what's around. Now here, two women whose taste and intelligence I respect have convinced me that I am missing something worthwhile.

  4. Oh, dear, did I make Josh look smirky? Forgive me, Josh. I fell in love with him back in the late 1990s, in Sports Night, a chatty and occasionally charming show, but it probably was a bit overly fond of its glibness (Aaron Sorkin's first TV series, I think). Will Gardner was a cocky character to be sure. But oh golly, did he have charm. The writers gave Josh a complex character, and he played the heck out of it. (Note: Annamaria and I have agreed to disagree about Sandra)

  5. Sheila, friend, I must confess .... I'm totally lost re Josh and Will!!!....I can't compete with your hair stylist!!! BUT...I loved your paragraphs on writing and know you got a humongous applause from your library audience!! tjs