56. The monthly challenge

I thought I’d try to describe the process of working on a story. I belong to an online writing community, at Webook. Every month, they offer a story challenge. Unless I’m busy with something else, I enter the challenges. Not always because I like the subject, but to hone my skill and hear the criticisms of other writers.

Last month’s them wasn’t to my taste – giving inanimate objects a voice. It lends itself too easily to Disney cuteness – friendly toasters, and malevolent cell phones. This month, it’s much more interesting. This is the challenge:

Angus is a vegetarian. Angus doesn’t like many people, but everyone seems to like him

Sarah ran away. Someone is looking for her, but she keeps outwitting them. Sarah loves the colour blue and ribbed sweaters.

Jake is a magician with a big secret. He likes poker and winning. Sometimes he tells lies just to get a reaction out of people.

Peter is having a very bad day. Peter has never loved anyone, but he would like to

Alexis is on a journey. Alexis hates sand and loves it when other people suffer misfortune

Carmen likes electro-swing and dancing. Carmen doesn’t like it when people tell her what to do
• Select a minimum of two characters from the set
• Place them in a scene of your own choice – the scenes do not have to relate to the photos in any way, although you may use them if you wish
• You must use all of the points shown on the character description within your story
• Tell us what happens in 1,000 words

I guess a greater focus on character is what I took away from the creative writing course last year, so this appealed. As the challenge says, “Talent will get you in the door, but character will keep you in the room”. Working with someone else’s characters is very different than developing your own. When a character springs from your soul, they share a part of you – they whisper their stories in your ear. It takes analysis to get to know a stranger’s characters.

The first character who piqued my curiosity was Alexis. Why did she hate sand? Why did she like it when other people suffer? And what was her journey? I decided to build the story around her. Angus and Peter would have offered an interesting dynamic, but that would probably have needed more words than my allotted 1,000.

character 2

Alexis’ hatred of sand made the choice of setting obvious – a desert. Alexis is crossing a desert. She hates the sand because it’s uncertain, slipping underfoot, and she’s searching for secure bedrock. This brought me an image of a shimmer on the horizon, so far away it’s impossible to tell whether it’s a mountain range or a great city.

Why does Alexis love others’ misfortunes? I had to puzzle over this for quite a while. I rejected the obvious answers that kept crowding in like naughty schoolboys peering round the door and demanding admission. No, she hadn’t been bullied and damaged as a child. No, it wasn’t revenge for her isolation. Then the answer came to me. Her schadenfreude was love. Alexis believes that suffering is essential for making you a whole human being – pain carves out the bowl which contains joy. She rejoices at others’ misfortune because she loves them.

If there’s a desert, of course there has to be an oasis, a place where travellers gather to rest and swap tales. I populated the oasis with Sarah, her daughter Carmen, and Jake – all trapped there by the fear of setting out again into the wasteland. Each tells their tale. But Jake is not all he seems to be. Alexis wonders if he mightn’t be the one pursuing Sarah.
Jake says there is a city across the desert, called Rasoul. He pronounces it Rasool, but Alexis translates it as Ra Soul, the pitiless soul of the Sun God? He says he knows the way to Rasoul and leads them in singing “we’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Rasoul”. Alexis thinks he may be the wizard of Rasoul.

Now all I needed was a plot line, which of course had to be determined by Alexis’ journey from suffering to joy, from the oasis to Rasoul. I’m still working on that, though my hunch is that Rasoul doesn’t exist, and may turn out to be another oasis, or perhaps even the same oasis. First attempts suggest that I have too many characters to make the story work.

I worry though that it may end up pretentious, freighted with trivial meanings. We’ll see.

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