Thursday, December 23, 2010

Getting Creative, Part 5: Introduce Random Folks

What if President Barack Obama met Chairman Mao Zedong in Majorca? Or Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda met astronaut Virgil Grissom in Aruba? No let’s stretch these scenarios some more: What if Obama met Johannes Sebastian Bach in eleventh-century India, Zedong met Francis of Assisi on the Christopher Columbus-skippered Santa María in the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, Neruda met Genghis Khan in an Internet café in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2004, and Virgil Grissom met El Greco at the Parthenon in Athens in 430 BC? What would these characters say to each other? How would they interact in their new environment?

Maybe you have nothing to write about concerning these historical figures, or maybe you couldn’t care less to write about them. But if you’re in a writing funk, it might be a great idea to introduce random characters to each other to see how they would interact in a time and environment unfamiliar to them. Maybe you’d get Obama talking to Bach not about American politics or Baroque music but about the reasonable price of food in Calcutta. Maybe Zedong would ask Francis not whether he agrees that Communism is an antidote for Christianity but whether he knows of antidotes to seasickness during their journey to the New World. Maybe Neruda and Khan would not analyze twentieth-century Spanish poetry and thirteenth-century Mongolian empires but would complain about how surfing the Internet does not compensate for the severe cold and total darkness of Alaskan winters. Maybe Grissom and El Greco would not exchange ideas on spaceflight or painting but they would talk admiringly of the Athenian view from the Acropolis. And those ideas—the price of food, the remedies for common illnesses, the weather, and the panoramic landscapes—are what drive narratives and preoccupy characters in fiction.

I am not suggesting that you write an entire treatise on such anachronistic encounters. Not even an entire paragraph. Just enough—whatever it takes—to make connections to the characters in the places and times you have placed them. You are likely to borrow some of their dialogue for your own characters.

Books by Philip Vassallo