Every now and then I hit a complete roadblock when I write. Sometimes it’s just a plot hiccup, other times I can’t seem to write dialogue. But I have found that the absolute WORST writing roadblock is when I don’t know who a character is.
The best example of this comes from The New York Series, which is still in desperate need of a title. I have three female leads (Gabriella, Jackie, and Elizabeth) and each of them as a love interest (Derek, Jonathan, Tyler). Both Jonathan and Tyler stand on their own two feet quite well. They don’t just exist for the sole purpose of being the significant other. Jonathan’s banter with Gabriella is one of my favorite things to write, and Tyler and Jackie have a bond over their shared love of trashy television.
And then we have…Derek.
Gabriella is arguably the main character of the series, and her love life is sort of the central feature of the story. (One day I will write a long post detailing the plot of this book, and it will make a bit more sense.) I know in my head what I want Derek to look like and what I want their relationship to be at the end of the book, but getting there is slow going and, quite frankly, rather boring. I came to a complete and utter stopping point one day because I just ran out of ways to make him interesting.
And then I realized my problem. I was treating Derek as a plot device instead of a character. I took a break from writing the forward action of the story to sketch out a backstory for him, including a sample scene of his friendship with Jonathan before Gabriella entered their lives. I found writing Derek scenes after this little exercise became much more natural, and now I’ve written one for every character. Yes, it kind of set me back on my word count, but by knowing my characters better, I will have an easier time in the long run.
ADDED BONUS: Because I love you all so much, here’s the Derek and Jonathan scene!
“I’m bored!” Jonathan announced.
“And this is my problem?” Derek didn’t bother to look up from his paperwork. He knew Sands was already spinning circles in his chair. It was one of his partner’s more annoying traits. Derek tried to counter it by occasionally replacing the chair with a stationary one, however Sands always managed to switch it back.
“As my partner, maybe,” Jonathan said. “Come on. Let’s go to the range or something. Get some training in.”
“We’ve got paperwork to do,” Derek reminded him. Jonathan snorted.
“You mean you have paperwork to do,” Jonathan said. “I got mine done hours ago.”
Derek’s head shot up. “We only closed the case this morning.”
“Yeah, I’ve been updating the report since we first were assigned. Kept all the details fresh and saved me time in the long run,” Jonathan tapped his head. “Work smarter, not harder. Try it sometime.”
Derek rolled his eyes and returned to the paper in front of him. Skimming over the details, he realized he hadn’t been as through as he could have been. There were a few things he couldn’t remember for sure, so he had left them out. There was no doubt Jonathan’s report would be a bit more detailed, but the basics were there.
Jonathan pushed his feet off his desk to cruise over to Derek’s desk. “Are you almost done?”
“Give me a minute,” Derek said. In the two weeks they had been working together, he had realized Sands could not stay put for more than a few hours at a time. The amount of caffeine he consumed on a daily basis probably didn’t help matters any.
“Finally!” Jonathan said with an overdramatic sigh. “Got plans tonight?”
Derek signed his name at the bottom of the sheet and closed the file. “I was going to head over to Joey’s and catch the rest of the game. What about you?”
“Dude, you go to Joey’s every night,” Jonathan said. “It’s a good bar to grab a drink after work, but it’s Friday night and there are plenty of clubs in the city! Let’s go out, have some fun, meet some girls. How long has it been since you got laid?”
Derek rolled his eyes again. “What’s wrong with Joey’s?”
“Never hook up with a girl you meet at Joey’s,” Jonathan said. “Only regulars go to Joey’s, and if that breakup goes badly, I’m sorry, but I will choose that bar over you any day.”
“Same goes,” Derek said with a grin. He shut down the computer and grabbed his leather jacket off the back of his chair. “Where do you have in mind?”
Apparently what Jonathan had in mind was a headache. The music in the club was so loud, Derek could barely hear his own thoughts if he wanted to. Instead, he sat at the bar nursing a whiskey he could have had for half price back at Joey’s attempting to hold a conversation with the friend of the girl Jonathan was in the middle of spinning around the dance floor. However, there wasn’t much to contribute to the conversation.
“And then I hit her with the shoe I was holding and ran to the cash register before the bitch could catch me,” the blonde finished with a dramatic hair flip. Derek tried to smile as he pulled the glass to his lips. He had absolutely nothing to say to that.
The blonde waved down the nearest bartender for another drink before leaning on the bar. “So,” she propped her head up against her palm. “What is it you do, Mr. Dark and Mysterious?”
For a brief second, Derek considered lying. Not because he wasn’t proud of his job, but rather he didn’t want to deal with another girl seeing if he could make her parking tickets disappear. In the end, he decided to tell the truth. “I’m a detective.”
“Wow!” The blonde’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “That must be so exciting.”
“It’s unpredictable, that’s for sure.” Derek glanced over his shoulder to see Jonathan still working his magic. He turned back to the blonde. “So how did the girl react?”
This put the spark back in her eyes. “Well, she called me pretty much every name in the book…”
Twenty minutes later, Jonathan dropped into the seat long vacated by the girl. “Dude, you are the worst wingman in the world,” he announced. He picked up Derek’s almost empty glass and held it against his cheek where both of the girls had slapped him.
“How was I supposed to know you slept with her best friend?” Derek asked. “She just asked what your name was, and the next thing I knew she was marching out to the floor.”
“You could have sent the signal!”
“Since when do we have a signal?”
“Since now,” Jonathan gestured for another drink. “We’re also having codenames. I’ll be Oliver Queen, and you can be Barry Allen.” Jonathan thought it through. “Actually on second thought, you can be Oliver Queen, and I’ll be Barry Allen. You’re broodier.”
“Uh huh. And what if she’s a DC Comics fan?”
“If she’s a DC Comics fan, she’s worth sleeping with,” Jonathan grinned. “Now, the next time one of us gets in trouble…”
“And by one of us, you mean you,” Derek interrupted.
“We can tell the other one,” Jonathan finished. “Now, what do you suggest?”
“How about I just yell, ‘Sands, you slept with her best friend!’ as loud as I can?” Derek suggested. Jonathan pretended to consider it.
“Alright, but if were ever in a raid, I think that might just give away our position, but we can work with it for now,” Jonathan clinked his glass against Derek’s and threw it back. “Damn they really put their whole body into those slaps.” He poured the rest of the ice from his drink into his other glass and continued to press it to his face.
“The windup was impressive,” Derek said. “Must have come from years of fighting over shoes.”
“You had to sit through that stimulating conversation, didn’t you?” Jonathan asked. Derek nodded. “Sorry buddy.”
“On the bright side, I didn’t sleep with her,” Derek said. “Which is how you ended up like that.”
“I got that,” Jonathan said. He called for two more drinks and then handed the bartender enough bills to cover the both of their tabs. “Come on, let’s go to Joe’s. If we talk to him nicely, he might turn on the rebroadcast.” He handed Derek his shot before downing his own and heading for the door. Derek did the same before nodding to the bartender and following.
Jonathan was in the middle of trying to hail a cab by the time Derek had made it out of the club. When the third one pulled up to the curb, only to be filled with a cliche of drunk young women, Derek steered Jonathan down the sidewalk. “It’s not that far of a walk.”
“Ok, but I expect you to defend my honor if we get jumped,” Jonathan said. Derek rolled his eyes.
The first few blocks were filled with Jonathan recounting the time he had met the girl who had slapped him while Derek laughed at the appropriate places. He liked Jonathan, he really did. He was the live wire everyone had described him to be, but at the same time he had such an infectious charism he couldn’t help but make you like him more.
“So,” Jonathan wrapped his arm around Derek’s shoulder. “What’s your story?”
“I didn’t sleep with her, so I don’t have a story,” Derek grinned. Jonathan shoved him in the shoulder.
“Asshole,” he said. “I meant, why did you become a cop?”
Derek shrugged. “My dad and uncles were on the force, and my grandpa was before them.”
“None of your brothers wanted to follow the family footsteps?” Jonathan asked.
“Nah Danny’s a stockbroker,” Derek said. Jonathan scoffed. “Yeah I know. And I have a sister who married a lawyer. So, it’s just me. What about you?”
“Well if this didn’t work out I was going to be an engineer,” Jonathan quipped. Derek bit back a laugh. He thought Jonathan was kidding, but he didn’t want to insult him if he wasn’t. “But I didn’t have a lot of help for college, and I always loved playing cops and robbers, so this was where I ended up.” He attempted a shrug. Derek could tell the alcohol was effecting him more than Jonathan was letting on. He made a mental note to only order him coffee once they got the bar.
“I think somewhere my mom wishes I got a less life-threatening job,” Derek said. “She’s heard Dad and Joe’s war stories too many times I think. Every time there’s a shooting on the news I get a call from New Jersey checking to make sure it wasn’t me.”
Jonathan looked at him with complete seriousness. “Don’t worry, man. I’d never let you retire to New Jersey.”
“I appreciate that, buddy,” Derek said. Jonathan was starting to lean on him a little bit more for support. “What about you? Your parents still in the city?”
“My mom’s out in Queens,” Jonathan said. “And I have no idea where my dad is. He split when I was seven.”
“Sorry,” Derek said.
“Hey, just reinforces the stereotype,” Jonathan said. “All cops are either legacies or from broken homes.”
“They should put us on the recruiting pamphlets,” Derek said. Jonathan’s carefree laugh made Derek’s smile widen.
“In this state too,” Jonathan added. “That’d get ‘em rolling through the door.”
The pair continued to laugh as they entered Joey’s bar. As if he expected them, Joey had already switched to ESPN. Derek pushed Jonathan onto a stool and ordered coffee for the two of them from the waitress. She recognized him from his short time as a bartender during his time in the academy, and a few minutes later she brought a plate of fries out to the two of them.
“You have all the right connections,” Jonathan told him as he popped a fry into the dish of ranch dressing.
“It pays when you’re related to the owner,” Derek said. He would have paid good money to get a picture of Jonathan’s face as the facts clicked into place.