Friday, May 4, 2012

Birthing a Character

Sometimes characters bore their way into your brain like termites into wood.  You find yourself picking up their speech patterns and inflection.  Their mannerisms become your own.  You might find yourself tugging on an extra paid of socks when you write their scenes, "because Emma's feet get ever so cold."  And then you realize that you don't talk like that, and where did that even come from?

Some characters are pieced together.  They are carefully constructed to reflect who you need them to be for that particular story.  Other characters are born, with all the screaming and cursing and gore that that entails.  The characters who are born do not need life breathed into them before they come alive on the page, they just are.

I birthed a character this week.  Until a few weeks ago, she was known to me simply as "The Widow Marx."  Sure, I knew that I would meet up with her eventually.  I did NOT know what an impact she would make on me. 

The Widow Marx decided to reveal herself to me yesterday morning when I was in the shower.  (Characters quite often have no respect for privacy!)  I could see her quite distinctly.  To be clear, this is not a bit lifted from my story (although you will find out some of these bits in the story).  Rather, this is how she emerged in my brain as I hurried to wash the conditioner out of my hair so I could grab a pen and paper to capture the essence of her:
The Widow Marx must have been born long before those who still live in the valley, because she tended to the birth of nearly all of them.  No one remembers when she first moved into the tiny rock cottage, she seems to have always been the sun and the stars.  
No one remembers her husband, either; he must have long since passed away.  For some reason, her loss seems to have defined her in such a way that she never managed to shake the label, although no one recalls just who gave it to her: The Widow Marx.  Somehow, though, it seems to fit her better than her given name:  Wilhelmina.  Only a few people dare to call her that--and even then, only in private.

She even refers to herself as The Widow.  She says it in her deep, guttural voice that somehow makes one think of Poland, or Germany, or Austria.  Her voice is gruff and familiar.  To the untrained ear, it might sound a bit like a growl, but to those of us in the valley, it is the sound of relief.

The Widow Marx is a healer.  No on in the valley can afford a doctor but, even if we could, no one here trusts them.  Here, we learn to just trust our own.  We trust The Widow Marx to patch us up, to keep our secrets, and to keep us safe...and she always has.  I don't know how she does it, but she does.

"The Widow, she knows things," she often tells me, even though I have learned not to question how she knows the things she knows.  No one questions The Widow Marx.  It is known.
Witch Hazel*

The first time I met her, she stood in her front yard.  She was surrounded by a tangle of witch hazel trees that were in full flower--a riot of yellow against the dull brown of late fall.  The witch hazel had taken over her yard, as had the feral cats that chased the scuttling leaves and lurked in the branches.  The wind was rattling the leaves--blowing those autumnal victims around her feet and then swirling them around her skirts.  Her wiry gray hair whipped around her face and floated around her shoulders.  She wore a deep plum colored cloak that she had worn every winter of my life.  It was patched in several places, but she assured everyone that there was "plenty of wear left." 

When I emerged from the woods, she stood amidst the witch hazel with her arms held slightly out to her sides.  Her eyes were closed, and her face was tilted toward the sky.  She swayed in the breeze...falling in rhythm with the graceful rocking of the tree branches high overhead.  It was as if the wind was caressing her, claiming her. 

I felt like I was intruding on a moment of intimacy.
Yet, this is how she came to me.  This is how she was born...strange, and quirky, and manipulative, and half-mad, and infinitely wise. 

So I thought I would share her with you, just a bit...

* Plant Guide wisely informs us:  A witch in old days was a person who did or said things not conventional. Our witch hazel has defied the ancient laws of the calendar-a very dreadful thing! So it comes honestly by its name; and one is inclined to ignore the accepted etymology that the word "witch," or "wych," in Old English, means "weak," and refers to the sprawling habit of the tree. Surely the observer cannot miss seeing little weazen witch faces grinning at him from all possible angles of the tree, their yellow cap strings flying in the wind, as if in defiance of the rumour that the days of witchcraft are past.