A couple of years ago, we were in New York at Christmastime. Our hotel was beautifully decorated; holiday music was piped in; shoppers were loaded down with packages – and smiles! Two couches were aligned back to back in front of a gigantic fireplace in an alcove just off the lobby. A middle aged couple was sitting on the back couch, having an intense conversation. So I took the front couch where I could see our family members come through the revolving door. The doorman in his white uniform with gold braid looked like a tall toy soldier. Shimmering to my left was a huge Christmas tree, laden with balls and tinsel and ornaments. Ah, Christmas!
As I focused on people coming through the door, my mind wandered to the couple and I tuned in on this vignette:
“Well, all I know is you weren’t like this before you got the sentence.” The woman clutched her purse to her stomach as she spoke, looking straight ahead.
“What sentence?” The man slumped on the couch asked.
“The Death Sentence. You know, you got Cancer.” She spoke angrily as she turned to look at him.
The man looked to his left, away from her. “Well, yes. It made me feel…shell-shocked.”
She began rummaging around in her purse. “You act differently. You seem more…feminine, crying and all.”
Triumphantly, she pulled out her lighter and a cigarette, and began the ritualistic lighting up ceremony. “I don’t like it…”
His head slumped further down on his chest. “I can’t help it! I have no control. It just happens.”
She blew smoke in his direction as she turned towards him.”Oh, please! Decide what to do and do it.”
He tried to process this and finally said: “Deciding what to do is hard but it’s harder to decide what NOT to do.”
“Is that a riddle?” she snapped. “Because all of a sudden I don’t know who you are any more. I can’t live like this.”
“All you talk about is dying. Or what treatments you might have to take.”
Slowly, he spoke. “Well, there’s lots of things to think about. Lots of decisions to be made. It’s hard to do.”
Harshly, she spoke. “Well, I don’t want any part of it, so keep away from me…”
Suddenly, she half-rose. “I need a drink.”
As she started towards the bar, she turned to look at him. “Well, are you coming?”
He hadn’t moved. “Well, I don’t know. Am I supposed to drink now? Not drink? I don’t know how to think about things…”
He raised his head to look in her direction. “What do you think I should do?”
She practically yelled at him. “I think you should leave me out of it!!”
His face crumpled. “But I need your help…”
She stood twisted, body half turned to the bar, her purse dangling. “I have no help to give you so don’t bother me about it.”
The man hunched forward on the couch, in the midst of getting up. “About what?”
“You know, about your cancer, about your dying. About all of it. Just leave me out of it!”
She waited on him to complete his laborious rise from the couch. “I’m going to the bar now. Are you coming?”
Halfway up, yet still halfway down, he mused more to himself than to her. “I don’t know. Should I drink anything? What should I drink? I could use a drink, but I don’t know. What do you think?”
Mercifully, my family showed up at this point, but I almost begged them to wait so that I could get some more of this fascinating conversation. God only knows what delicious words angst plus alcohol would spew out of their mouths! I already had the characters pegged as to looks, and had decided that a play was the best vehicle for their story. The disconnect between the characters was so palpable that they needed that audience interaction to feel people lining up behind them, taking his or her side and flinging it back to the other side with the force of a battering ram. It hurt to watch them interact, and I knew that further words would hurt even more. There was no pity here, no love, no compassion, and certainly no offer of help. Now that I knew WHO the characters were, all I needed to do was to go up and down their timelines to flesh out their individual and combined stories.
(I am going to pause here to tell you that this sounded very familiar to me and I had to identify when and where I had experienced it before developing my characters further. Finally it came to me. It was another winter but not in New York. It was at Lake Tahoe and I had gone with my husband on a business trip. I was behind closed doors in the ladies room when two women came in. As they washed their hands, the following conversation ensued – and I will tell you if you haven’t already guessed that this exchange was taken down verbatim with lipstick on toilet paper. I felt like I was in Dolly Partin’s 9 to 5 movie!)
“She did what?!”
“Honey, she hauled him out of the nursing home and made him come on this trip!”
“She did NOT!”
“Yes, she did! It was a couples tour and you can’t come if you aren’t a couple.”
“Well, couldn’t she have asked a friend…?”
“Martha, you know the woman. Do you think a friend would come with her? I mean, I don’t even think she has any friends…”
“You’re right. Someone told me they thought her husband faked his dementia symptoms just to get put in a place where she couldn’t get at him…”
“Well, it didn’t work. She got him out two days ago and he’s been on the bus obviously sick and upset every day since.”
“Poor man. All he wanted was just to live out his life in peace…”
“Well, she can’t get to him any more. When she got up this morning, she started shaking him to get him up so they wouldn’t be late for the free breakfast…and he was DEAD! The couple in the room next door said that she screamed and yelled at him, ‘You sorry bastard! Now I’m going to have to cancel my trip!”
(Years have passed since then and I am sorry to say that I have seen this type of couple several times. Sad, but true…)
Okay. Now I am ready to place this real couple in a scene I have made up to see if I have, in fact, “nailed” their characters…
The scene is a doctor’s office. The man is on the examination table; the woman sits forward on a chair, clutching her purse with both hands, in her lap. The doctor enters and (reading from a chart) says:
“Well, Mr. Abramson, we have your test results back and…”
“How long do you think he has? How long does it take to die from this type of cancer? Will he be done by Spring? I could go to my sister’s by Spring cause her kids are out of school…” The wife stands up, pulling her skirts out of the back of her legs with one hand, holding the ever-present purse in the other.
The doctor nods in her direction, then turns to face his patient. “Before I get into the technical part, do you have any questions for me?”
“Yes, I do, Dr. Wenn, and thank you for asking. I do have questions, but I can’t keep them in my mind long enough to ask them. It’s like a movie marquee in there, in my mind. And on the marquee it says ‘It’s all over, Sol. You’re dying…Prepare to meet your maker’…It’s scary, doc.”
“Sorry. What did you ask me, Doctor?”
The Doctor pushes his glasses up his nose says, “Well, Sol, I asked if you had any questions…”
Sol: “Oh, right. Well, yes. Is this a death sentence? Are you certain I will die? Is there anything that can be done here?”
Dr. Wenn: “Before I answer those questions, let me tell you what helps most of my patients. You can go online and look it up. I have suggested some medical sites here which will work with the patient; in fact, a couple are interactive. Here’s a summary of my diagnosis and the medical terms are highlighted. Those are the ones you will want to look up. You know how you are feeling, so look for those symptoms. And remember not to believe the worst – or the best – advice you are given.
Now for your diagnosis…”
AT THIS POINT, I usually try to identify at least two scenarios that the play can take, and develop the plots accordingly. I would probably go to a medical blog and read patient reviews of how they were treated personally and chemically with this same condition. There’s a wealth of conversation on blog sites!
And this is a good time to flesh out your main characters by imagining how and where they live. Go there, if possible, and walk their neighborhoods, talk/listen to their “imaginary” neighbors. What habits are they defined by? What speech patterns make their conversations predictable? Do they have a pet? If not, why not? Children? Grandchildren? Do/Did they work? At what? Where? Church? Synagogue? Politics? Read the demographics on their age group. Did they travel? What was their proudest moment? Their biggest disappointment? Any lost loves? Close friends? The more you can dig up about these imaginary people, the more your characters will shimmer and shine as REAL people to your readers.