I’d like to tell you that Dawn came fully clad out of the cleft head of Zeus…but that would be avoiding truth in favor of myth. To give you a fair answer, the character of Dawn contains a part of every woman I’ve ever known — from my own mother, to my former wife, down to the wildest tigress I ever dated. And it doesn’t stop there.
Quite a confession…but not very satisfying. No mere floozy is Dawn Carlisle, this wild woman wanderer, who suicidally jumps out of Abner’s truck at the Palm Coast I-95 exit in Florida, then turns into a principled young woman capable of nursing an injured bull terrier back to health. She then, in good time, falls for her rescuer, Abner Weaver, the truck driver who has interrupted her march to oblivion down the American road…all of it, quite a stretch. How can this woman have so many sides?
Where, but in America, does a woman have the right to cast herself adrift with no one concerned enough to come to her aid? Someone might help (as Abner Weaver most certainly does), but it would take an unusually kind person — sensitive to the pain in another — to step outside the callousness we generally display toward anyone wandering the berm. Head down, bindle under an arm, deep in anguished thought, a female vagabond exhibiting not the slightest desire of needing a lift… Health and legal ramifications aside — would you stop to pick up such a woman?
What if…you DID stop, accepting whatever it was that was coming to you for committing such a foolhardy act? Suppose you had no ulterior sexual or monetary motive in attempting to aid such a person? What Christian credits might be chalked to your slate? But…you never intended to stop, did you? Not in a million years…
That’s the beauty of the novel. We can indulge ourselves…let it all hang out! The truth is, I have a lot of pent-up emotions regarding the women I’ve formed close bonds with over the course of my life…I’ve drawn freely on some of those feelings to shape Dawn. Fifteen years of married life packed plenty (the good and the bad) in my emotive memory bank. Then the nastiness of a divorce…the painful transition to a solitary life.
Does a man then insulate himself from the complexities of the female mind? I guess that’s done easily enough…writing, as I do, in isolation. But living like a hermit, how do I feel the emotions I’m no longer privy to? How, as a writer, do I reconstruct situations I no longer experience? Numerous women novelists have accurately cranked out the thoughts and emotions of male characters…why not the reverse? After all, I do have a rich backlog of experience to draw from. My years before marriage weren’t particularly cloistered.
Let me sidestep to another theory: that men and women are neither all masculine, nor all feminine; instead, a mixture, genetically, of inherited traits — some feminine, some masculine. You might describe the physical features and dress of a gorgeous female creature, yet gift her with the cold, calculating mind of an international banker, softened again with a mother’s love for her child, bringing the reader a fascinating and convincing character. (This is partly what appeared when I first set Dawn Carlisle on the page.)
But you can’t just woodenly toss a bunch of character traits into a big mixing bowl, stir them around and expect something believable to pop out. You must feel a genuine excitement in the character you’ve chosen to set down — sensing in them a budding star quality. (A few main characters will be allowed to steal the show; but you will need to suppress your secondary characters so they do not. Even so, those minor characters may toss off tiny sparks of stardom.)
I really believe that, within yourself, you’ve got to feel the same gut emotions each character is experiencing. If you don’t, neither your description of their actions, their personae, or the words they utter will convey that indefinable “IT” quality — that stellar quality — which must emerge, or like empty sacks your characters will collapse.
Every writer has to kill his own snakes, getting “IT” onto the page. If you find my characters interesting, that may come from the magical education I received in the mid-1950s, when I studied “method” and character acting in New York with the great Stella Adler. When the people you are writing about are so deeply imbued in your psyche you can virtually touch and feel them as you write their scenes, that’s a gift no one can ever take from you. (It’s bound to produce riveting work.) It may take years of banging away at the keyboard, but one day you will be startled — you’ll know when you see “IT” on the page. You’ll sit back, scratching your head, “Did I just write that?…”
To get into the desperate, scrambled brain that is Dawn Carlisle’s when she jumps out of Abner’s truck, conceivably to her death, I started with the recordings of Janis Joplin; film clips from Bette Midler’s portrayal in “The Rose;” then read a few biographies of Janis. (This was occasioned by a writing instructor at the Cape Cod Writers’ Conference. She had given our class a reading assignment; a story so oddly violent that I refused to believe the young woman protagonist capable of such jumbled thinking.) By the time I’d finished my study of Janis Joplin, I was a believer. I felt my own nervous system twitching, jangling, rebelling …forget the drugs. I was THERE…with Janis!
But Dawn’s male side — that’s the poker wizard. Cool, calculating, and exacting. The careful student of Doyle Brunson’s Super System, her gifted mathematical mind plotting the way to clean out every poker player in Steelton and Reading, PA…revenge for the fortune her alcoholic father had lost at the game. (This is back-story, off the page.)
And let’s not forget that Dawn is the mother of a five-year old daughter, Lisa. You’d better know, from your observation of life on this planet, that the female of the species — animal or human — is not to be separated from her offspring. A good mother will do anything to protect and nurture her child. Anything imaginable…no holds barred!
Somewhere I read that women are gatherers and men the hunters who “risk death to bring back meat.” Women bring back the immediately useful stuff, like “honey, fruit, water…and the hunters.” Women mostly live longer than men; programmed by nature to do so. They are (generally) more conservative in their actions. A woman’s wiles can translate to the cadgey; to downright unscrupulous behavior when it’s necessary for survival or the protection of a child. Once sobered up by Abner’s ministrations and the care she administers to an injured dog, Dawn begins to redirect her energies toward regaining possession of her daughter.
Dawn Carlisle originates from good stock, part of it Sioux Indian. So we must know something about what it is and was like to be an Oglala Sioux, transported east to attend the Carlisle Indian School in the late 1800s. That was her great grandfather — the Sioux character very much a part of Dawn’s every decision, as is the white, Irish industrial heritage on her mother’s side.
She loves Abner with a barely concealed Sioux fierceness, and here we are back to my longing for a character who is not afraid to shower love on someone worth loving. When Dawn knows love, she shows love. I gave Dawn objectives at every turn. Within each scene she has an objective.
Whether Dawn gains that objective or is frustrated in her efforts to achieve it, we watch how she acts and reacts. As writers, we judge her behavior. Should it ring false to the persona discovered in Dawn, should it deface that “IT” star quality she has exhibited before, we’ll do that scene over — NOT her character. Dawn’s traits, speech and actions are now ingrained — her character walking, thinking, talking in one distinctive way. Instinctively, we know that way when we see it. And we will cast out the crap, whenever and wherever we see it, as not representing the true and honest origins of Dawn Carlisle.
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