By Allan Stratton
Why do I write? If I don’t, it’s like I’m suffocating. It’s been like that since before I could spell.
Mom was a single working parent, so I was on my own a lot, growing up. Plus, I had rheumatic fever and three bouts of pneumonia by the time I was five, so I spent chunks of time in bed. To amuse myself, I played with hand puppets and three china elves. I’d make up stories about them, then try to write the stories down by sounding out the letters.
Years ago, I wrote about my obsession to write in a play called Papers. One of the characters is a novelist. He says, “Writing is a sickness, but when it’s happening I don’t ever want to get better. I’m off in a land where all the unrelated scraps of time and event, all the meaningless odds and ends I waste my life with, have shape. Form. Substance. In my little universe, life has order. Meaning. And I’m free. When I’m with my typewriter, I can take on the world.” I still feel that. Only now I use a computer.
My approach to writing characters has always been influenced by my background in theatre. (Mom took me to Stratford starting in kindergarten; I was an actor in my twenties and a playwright in my thirties.) Actors always have to pretend to be someone they aren’t. So at the top of each scene, for each character, I ask myself the basic actor questions: What’s my situation? What do I want? What am I going to do to get it? I ask myself the same questions for each character. It’s like I’m doing a solo improv.
As for plot? To me, character and plot are two sides of the same coin. In life, we discover people’s characters based on what they do. In fiction, what characters do is the plot. If you start with plot you have to ask what kind of characters would behave according to your story. If you start with character, you have to ask what they’re going to fight for; i.e., what’s the plot. Interesting people make interesting choices, so the most interesting characters will likely have the most interesting stories. Writers who ignore character end up with bad plots because the stories don’t make human sense, they’re cardboard. But writers who ignore plot end up with bad characters, because human beings who do nothing are boring.
One last thing I’m always asked — a personal question — who is my greatest influence. Without question, my mom. She was the bravest, smartest, most amazing person I’ve ever known — and probably the reason strong female characters come naturally to me. Mom left my Dad when I was a baby, at a time when people didn’t divorce. She worked in education; we moved where her jobs took her. There were some challenging times, but no matter what, Mom always made me feel secure. She is unconditional love made human. I am so very, very grateful to have had her as my parent, my friend, my guide. She taught me to be open to life, and to think for myself. I owe her everything.