What if her girlfriend is actually her mother?

I enjoy the sensational, daytime talk show-esque nature of this question. But as it happens, it’s neither an episode of Jerry Springer nor a mythological Kullervo* or Turin** situation. It’s a possible solution to a couple of my own fictional characters who are each either vitally important or completely extraneous, with cases to be made for either option, but almost no middle ground. In short: it’s a decision. And I’m bad at those.

All characters are potentially:

  • Expendable.
  • Replaceable by any other character.
  • Replaceable by wind-up automata, golems, and holograms; they all need to fear that their jobs will be taken by robots. Whether their purpose is emotional, logistical, thematic, or plot-devicey, they can be replaced by another character who fulfills the same role, possibly better.

One of my characters frequently runs away from the family bakery to meet her secret girlfriend in a shady part of town where they take care of a stray dog. The girlfriend sees and says things she isn’t supposed to, and occasionally threatens to hijack my entire story with her possible homelessness and constant spying on the main character’s family, until I turn from her power and write some other scene. Or this blog post.

My character also has a mother [OR DOES SHE?!?!!?] who has come and gone from different iterations of my draft, drifting away like vapor only to turn up again more vibrant than before: a woman as wise as she is muscular, kneading bread and doling out life advice. The father and the family bakery drive some important plots, so her conspicuous absence has become more and more irritating, like a hole in a sock that you keep putting through the wash only wear it again after forgetting about the hole. By unwritten rule, all first draft mentions of the mother must include a dramatic, bracketed, all-caps statement, a note-to-self for my revision.

“My chance had arrived. “You don’t need me, do you father?” I asked casually. Casual, with just a hint of sweetness. The lemonade of asked questions.


And sure enough, he waved a hand to the door. “No, no. Go see your mother.” [IF SHE HAS A MOTHER]

When combining the two characters occurs to me, I am typing away at an especially small and sunny Dunkin Donuts. I sit with a mess that has been made in seven minutes, although I only have an hour to write before work. My backpack on the table forms a wall defending a sprawl of index cards, laptop, bullet journal, project notebook, an iced cold brew the size of the Argonath, and a squishy croissant sandwich.

On this morning, the Dunkin is solely populated by pairs of old men. Two talking about the comings and goings of local businesses, two talking about music and the capo on a particular guitar. Another pair is made up of one talking sports to his companion as though he’s reading a bedtime story while the other frequently interjects with a hacking cough that sounds like a rottweiler.

WHAT IF HER GIRLFRIEND IN ACTUALLY HER MOTHER? The thought slams on some kind of mental caps lock, startling me into locking eyes with the man who is the living memory of failed northern Rhode Island businesses. Does it make selfish Vilari more sympathetic if she’s sneaking away to see her absent mother? Do I want her to be more sympathetic? What about the spying plotline—wait, is it more poignant if it’s the mother? Is it now appropriate rather than annoying that this character, Fya, has a name that rhymes with that of the main character, Tya?

Writing fiction requires a lot of decisions, and I can’t understate my awfulness at making decisions. I spent a week—fine, two weeks–refreshing the page for these reusable baggies every time I came across that tab in my browser, paralyzed and unable to decide what color I wanted. Would the smiling octopus make me unhappier on depressive days? Did I like the watercolor pattern or is it a little too suggestive of a girly floral? Should I spend the extra dollar to get the patterns I like best because they will make me happier, or will I stop noticing the pattern after a few weeks anyway?

My challenge with the story is to find the story’s true north in a sea of infinite choices. It’s like the old Lucky Charms commercial where there are suddenly a bunch of Lucky the Leprechauns, and none is obviously the real one until you acquire some gizmo from the cereal box. 3d glasses? But I don’t have 3d glasses to pick the right character, and there is no GPS to tell me my way—I would need to input a destination I don’t know. All I can do is squint at the horizon, try to figure out if the purple smudge is a mountain, and then try to figure out if I am full-on ready to go to a mountain right now. Which reminds me that I have lived my entire life in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and never earned a “This car has climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker.

All I have to go on is the strength of my own taste, and my own concept of what I want my story to be about.

An index card with
Why the giant flourish? No idea, but it clearly prevented me from effectively writing other things on the card.

Ultimately, I did the right thing: I didn’t let the decision derail me. I’m procrastinating on figuring this out so I can avoid procrastinating on the meat of the story: all the stuff with the bakery and the dreaded wedding and how my main character is basically using the most powerful magical item of her time as a poor coping mechanism for depression. I wrote my question on an index card to carry around in my pocket, in the hopes that this will be like a program running in the background of my brain, working on cobbling together a GPS out of 3D glasses.

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*SPOILER ALERT. In the centuries-old Finnish mythology collected in the epic The Kalevala, Kullervo falls in love with a woman who turns out to be his sister.

**DOUBLE SPOILER ALERT. In decades-old Middle Earth mythology written in The Silmarillion, based partly on The Kalevala, Turin falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a sister, and it’s maybe a dragon’s fault. I forget. It’s been seven years since the last time I read The Silmarillion.

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