by Kellie Larsen Murphy
The June Writing Show played to a nearly packed house at the Broadberry on a beautiful evening this June. Attendees were treated to a lively panel moderated by young adult author Gigi Amateau. The three panelists included Cleve Lamison, an actor, screenwriter, and novelist; Jon Sealy, a short story writer and novelist; and Ted Petrocci, a licensed mental health professional with over thirty years as a psychotherapist, trainer, and educator.
Lamison, whose writing honors include the Mary Roberts Reinhart National Drama Award and the Pilgrim Project New Play Award has had two plays performed off-Broadway. His screenplay, Following Bliss, has been made into an award-winning feature film. His debut novel is Full-Blood Half-Breed.
Sealy’s stories have been published in numerous magazines and literary journals and his story, “Issaqueena,” won the 2012 fiction contest at Still. The Whiskey Baron is his debut novel.
Petrocci uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), counsels and treats patients with life issues, and specializes in anxiety and mood disorders.
Gigi began the evening by jumping into the psychology of creating characters and what CBT might offer authors. Petrocci summarized, saying it’s “the essential ingredient in managing the difference between thinking and feeling.” He explained that people get “stuck” and the reason is usually difficulty getting through emotional blocks. Reason is needed to steer around those blocks. He also said, “Language plays a big part because we think in words.” Attachment to our characters can also be a stumbling block. Petrocci suggested that all people have thoughts that may not be admirable and choose not to act on them, but as a writer, you can have your characters behave in ways you would not.
Sealy told the audience his novel, The Whiskey Baron, was borne out of an image, an old photograph that spoke to him. To create a believable story set in the time of 1930’s prohibition, he went through the “process of world building.” It required research and pages and pages describing the time, place, and day-to-day life. He joked that it was boring, dull work with nothing happening. Then he threw two dead bodies into page one! For Sealy, “world building is what fiction is.” Once he created the world, the plot and characters flowed.
Lamison admitted he is “drawn to characters who are grey.” A fan of George R. R. Martin, he likes “moral ambiguity in human nature.” On the subject of villains, Lamison said, “no character thinks they’re a villain.” In his own novel, Full-Blood Half-Breed, the “villain” has had a hard life and is initially, unlikeable. However, the reader sees him differently when the love interest enters the story. “You meet people and form impressions,” Lamison said. “Then you find things out. That’s character building.”
Sealy agreed, saying that while his villain is horrible and a bad man, he sympathizes with him. The panel agreed that every character reflects something of the author—even the bad ones.
Gigi introduced the concept of the “landscape of soul” or discovering the interior life of our characters, suggesting that interior is always growing. Writers can show that interior with the words they choose.
Petrocci used the example of sugary vs. kind in describing the actions of a character. Each word, when written on the page, evokes a different response from the reader.
Gigi revealed that when she can’t quite get her arms around her character, she will interview them (asking as herself and answering as her character). Curious about her questions? Here they are:
- What do you want most in the world?
- What’s stopping you from getting what you want most in the world?
- What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?
- I’m here for you, darling. How may I help you?
Lamison has his own trick for getting into the heads of his characters. He places them all at a dinner table to see what happens. Getting into the head of your characters, even the bad ones, makes better fiction. The panelists advised finding a way to fall in love with your villain. Often, they are fulfilling their “purpose” and their morality, while not the same as civil morality, makes sense in their world.
An enthusiastic Q&A session followed where the panelists stressed authenticity by finding a commonality between you and your character even when they are a different gender/race/age/other. The group may have even found a future writing show topic: How do you write and perceive gender in fiction? I’m looking forward to it!