Naomi Kwan: Strong like Water

Naomi is by far the nicest of my protagonists. She is generous and nurturing, a people-pleaser and a compromise-seeker. Unless cornered she will accommodate or retreat rather than confront, and she values peace over principle. She prefers physical exertion to mental effort, and sees no point in learning for learning’s sake.

In short, she is very much my opposite. I guess that philosophical/psychological saying about all of us containing infinities must be true. I created Naomi and adore her. but I have to step outside myself a long way to see life as she does.

Writing about her from other POVs also presented some serious headaches. Some of those characters don’t value the virtues of forbearance and endurance.  To them, Naomi looks like an unintelligent, ineffectual doormat waiting for people to walk all over her. I had to filter my words through their worldview while still showing readers the smart, compassionate, powerful person Naomi can be.

Victimization and abuse are hazards for self-effacing people,  granted, but they’re dangers Naomi has mostly worked out by the time she hits my stories. That was what I had to emphasize. She’s vulnerable, yes. Imperfect, certainly. Weak? No.

Naomi is strong like water: almost invisible, often taken for granted, but able to flow around any obstacle, seep into the smallest space and eventually, inexorably, get to the bottom of everything.

Let me digress a bit to discuss the way character creation meshes  with story design. Many authors start with ideas, plots, plans, or theme and then make characters whose skills and personalities will best present the desired ideas. Others take a real-life approach and put people they know into their stories, either as piecemeal traits or whole characters.

Me?  I … meet them. No, really.  Given the sheer amount of detailed advice and tools devoted to character development an author can find  on the internet, I suspect that’s not the norm, but it’s how I roll.

I came to storytelling through tabletop gaming, where I could sit and make new characters all night. Trait lists, talents, skills, vulnerabilities and fears– they come to me with as little conscious thought as making a fist or walking. I’m sure there’s lots going on under the hood, so to speak, but all I need is a germ of a an idea, a hint of a direction, and I can riff variations on a personality/past/plusses/minuses theme for hours.

Contrast this with my plotting struggles. Reducing the endless possibilities of a beginning to a single resolution requires tedious elimination of alternatives. It’s like chess, and I hate chess. It’s boring and brings me no joy. This explains why my writing process best resembles the technique I developed running role-playing sessions: begin with a set-up and an ending in mind, aim characters at the starting line, and let them find their own way to the ending.

I start every story with a mental image of someone doing something somewhere, and boom. The characters appear. The introductory pieces I write are rarely the first ones in the finished novel (often they don’t appear at all)  but the process itself is pure fun.

In this case, I was able to use the material as my first chapter. Serena showed up first. (I profiled her here, in case you missed it)    Before I finished writing that scene of her getting ready for a party, Naomi popped up from my subconscious fully-formed like some caretaker Athena, ready to do whatever needed doing for her friend.

That was great. I immediately knew she was my heroine. The drawback was that she was who she was. Risk-averse sweethearts are not  the kind of characters I picture when I think of fast-paced action storylines big on conflict, hostility and defiance of authority.

It occurs to me that I  could divide my characters into elemental groups. Take-charge, in-your-face, energetic fire characters like Parker and Alison move fast and burn nice straight lines to follow. Solid, principled, grounded characters like Justin and Felicity provide structure and framework, giving the story a direction. Flighty, airy, characters tend to breed complications and distractions (Hi, Carl) but they certainly add interesting detail.

But water? Oh, water is hardest of all to write. It’s difficult to contain, like air, and it’s even harder to push aside, but unless you do push it, it just sits there.

Like Naomi.

As it turns out, curiosity, laziness, and loyalty will push even the most conflict-averse heroine into action, and defiance comes in many forms, including passive evasion.

Naomi has no love for repetitive tasks, but poking her nose into things to see what’s inside is an irresistible temptation. Putting her in a situation where those two traits would combine disastrously was the key to getting her (and my plot)  moving.

And although she might not fight for herself, she will go to the wall for anyone she loves. All I had to do was write Serena into danger, and Naomi followed.

That’s how this all works for me. I set up my characters by playing to the weaknesses in their strengths, they do astounding things, and all I have to do is follow along and write it all down. Simple.  Well. Simple like riding a barrel over a waterfall is simple.

It’s worth the work and the risk of crashing at the bottom.  I meet such interesting people this way.