Writing Craft

Finding Simon: The Creation of a Character

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Carroll County News

I’m studying a list of common German names, seeking to name a character, a young scientist who believes that in a mechanistic universe, there is no Mystery. Müller, Schmidt, Schneider, Weber, Becker, Simon. Simon. From Hebrew for God has heard. And I hear a sound, almost a literal cha-king ring in my head.

There’s an old Twilight Zone episode featuring a robot factory, where children choose hair and eyes and other features and throw them down a hopper. Out comes the perfect grandmotherly caregiver.

Writers use this process to create their characters. There must be physicial characteristics, history leading to the opening point of the story, and psychological traits that compel the character. Strengths. Inner demons. Yearnings.

Worksheets exist to write all this in boxes. But I don’t create characters as if I’m doing my taxes. I wait. For the cha-king in my head, the sound of another piece dropping into place.

What was the moment of conception for Simon, the very first thing I knew about him long before he had a name? Years ago, a woman who taught Bible class in a conservative denomination told me that a mutual friend had recently married a man who was Roman Catholic. They had two children, whom they took to Mass on Sunday morning and to the conservative denomination on Sunday night and Wednesday night. “It’s my job,” the Bible class teacher said confidently, “to undo everything they learn on Sunday morning.”

My first thought was shock that this woman saw herself commissioned by God as a gigiantic eraser of faith. My second thought was: what adult would be produced by such a regimen? Someday, I thought, I’ll write a book about him.

As the plot develops, necessary characteristics of the character emerge. I need to put Simon on the roof of an ancient European church. How can he get there.? Not a bucket truck, because a cemetary surrounds the church. He’ll have to climb. Simon will be a rock climber. I want that metaphor of arduously climbing above religion to the Mystery above.

I interviewed a local climber about gear and procedures. I thought it crazy and was embarrassed to say that I needed Simon to climb a church. “Oh, that’s how I learned to climb,” he said. “It’s called buildering.”

This climber lived in Kansas where there were no cliffs, so he climbed buildings. Cha-kings ricocheted in my head. Pieces of Simon’s history falling into place.

Then, I had to drive through northern Oklahoma, so I detoured into this area of Kansas. I had driven it a number of times and could have written it from memory. But I wanted to see it through Simon’s eyes. I didn’t go with an agenda or specific questions to answer. I just wanted to see where the Spirit would take me. I wanted to listen for cha-kings.

Walking my dog at sunrise, I saw early sunlight illuminate a block of buildings. Chick’s Pool Hall. Cha-King.

The climber had mentioned climbing an old rock railroad trestle, about 50 feet tall, across Grouse Creek. I didn’t intend to look for it. I didn’t know I needed to see it. But driving west, I crossed Grouse Creek. There was a road to the right. I turned up it. I drove several miles, wondering how there could be a 50-foot bridge in this flat ground. I flagged down a car, and it was a couple about 20 years old, Simon’s age when he was here–were he real, of course. They knew the spot and directed me down a gravel road. There it was. Maybe not the one the real climber remembered. But definitely Simon’s. I took pictures of the rough-cut limestone arches. The water in Grouse Creek. I heard the cha-king. I’m supposed to be here. Something important happened to Simon here.

There is much I don’t know about Simon. But I will. I know Simon is not a real person, that he is stepping out of my head. And yet, he is real. In some ways more real. He is a composite, a distillate of our confusion, our embitterment, our hope. Simon is the lie that tells the truth.

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