You would think that after countless revisions and tinkering, I would be so sick of a published short story that I'd never want to see it again. But I will admit to sometimes admiring my own work, so when I received the current issue of Poui, the literary magazine for the University of the West Indies in Barbados, I looked up my story, "Thieves," and re-read it.
In the story, Rickie Simons, a rookie policewoman, investigates a rash of thefts on the island where she grew up. Her work leads her to two underage perpetrators whose mother isn't greatly concerned about her sons' activities. "These two ain't school-smart," she says. "But they clever. They're good at thieving, so why shouldn't they be thieves?"
Rickie is stung by the mother's words, reminded of being labeled as less bright than her successful sisters. Angered by the situation yet keeping her feelings to herself, she ends the meeting by confiscating the goods and issuing a stern warning. Then, on her way out, she swipes the family's TV remote.
Why does she do that? Honestly, I don't know. Weird, isn't it? She's a fictional character that I created, but I don't know everything about her. In fact, the story is my attempt at getting to know her better. Still, I don't know why she takes the remote. She just does.
Advice for fiction writers frequently treats characters not as created people but as reported people. Dialogue comments such as "listen to your characters" and "don't put words in his mouth" seem odd to those new to the craft, but then comes the "aha!" moment. It is a sort of magic. We don't create characters; we conjure them up, then see what they'll say or do next.
The lesson of leaving people alone and not trying to manipulate them extends beyond the manuscript page, doesn't it? Sometimes you learn more, empathize more and understand more when you're left to puzzle out something instead of creating a handy answer.
How can he possibly believe that? Who does she think she is? Does he understand what he's doing? Why does she do that? I don't know. Let's step back and see.