Saturday, January 29, 2005

Fictional Restraint

The hardest thing about writing a life story is that you have to fight the urge to let the fiction run away with the story.

From the outset I knew the story of Bobby and Richard would be about people who were not extraordinary. The struggles they face are the same as just about everyone else, and the way they deal with them isn't heroic; sometimes their character flaws are maddening. That's the hardest part of writing this story: making the characters interesting as they face the ordinary struggles of growing up without resorting to cliches and tricks that make everything work. For example, in an early draft of the novel, Bobby is dead and the story is told as a flashback leading up to his death. Then the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald tapped me on the shoulder, (not to mention the opening scenes of Lawrence of Arabia) and I threw that idea out. Having him dead makes it easy; a tug at the heartstrings and a neat ending of the story. To make it really interesting, Bobby is alive throughout the story and goes on living after it is over. It also leaves room for the sequel.

So how do I make these ordinary people interesting and worth writing about about? It has to do with identification. I am hoping that a lot of people who read the story - if they ever do - will identify with some of the feelings Bobby goes through as he grows up and falls in love. True, he's a gay rich kid that attends a New England boarding school (well, there is a pretty wide audience that identifies with that; trust me), but his feelings are universal to anyone who's fallen in love at the age of fifteen and then spent years trying to get that feeling back. You do not have to be a gay teenager to know what that's like. Who doesn't know what it's like to find themselves in the throes of a crush bordering on obsession - why else would they name a perfume after it?

Bobby isn't the only character in the story facing these questions. Richard is too, and I am sure that there are many people who can identify with a boy who all his life feels that he is somehow different than the other kids, but has to wait until he finds someone else who feels that same way before he can be fully comfortable with himself. That's not peculiar to being gay; everybody at one time or another feels like no one else understands what they're going through. Richard struggles with being afraid to tell his parents that he's gay - not because he is afraid they'll disown him (although that does cross his mind) - but because he doesn't want to embarrass them in front of their friends. How does he tell his younger brother without shaming him with his peers? And how do I write this without turning it into a Lifetime Movie starring Markie Post? It's not easy.

The answer lies in listening to the characters and trusting them as much as they've trusted me to tell their story. I know these people. I know what they're capable of doing, and better yet, they know what they won't do, and they'll tell me. The easy way out may be what I want, but it's not what they want. And it's their story.


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