Ask a dozen storytellers how their ideas begin, and you’ll get six-hundred seventy-nine different answers. (No really, it’s true. We’re writers, not mathematicians, so inside secret here: everything having to do with numbers is accurate no matter how wrong it seems to people who can actually add and...that thing with the straight line. Not a dash...a minus sign. SUBTRACT! Yeah—that’s it.) All of mine start with a one-liner about the protagonist:
- A regular dude who turns into a vampire after a bad date. He plays synthesizer (an important detail).
- An angst-ridden music prodigy who thinks a rock star might be his dad. He plays guitar (important here, too).
- Two sisters who tend a cemetery and can summon the dead. They play with corpses (gross, but still important).
When Sid Handelman showed up, he was part of a pun in the title. The one-liner was: an illusionist who has real magic, but no one knows about it. And the phrase “sleight of hand” is just one of my most favorite word combinations ever, and I don’t know why, so don’t ask me, just accept it and let’s move on. OKAY FINE, I'll tell you why...it’s probably because “sleight” is spelled so weirdly. There. Happy now? Good. At any rate, these two things came together, and then “hand” elongated into “Handelman,” and suddenly it wasn’t just an idea about an illusionist anymore. It became a story about someone whose very existence might be an illusion...
So I had Handelman as the main character, and his basic scenario. “THIS STORY IS WRITING ITSELF!” is a thing I always think at this point in the process. But who is Handelman? “THIS STORY HAS STOPPED WRITING ITSELF AND NOW I’M DOING ALL THE HEAVY LIFTING! WHY DO I PUT MYSELF THROUGH THIS?” is a thing I usually thinks as soon as I have to do actual work. I did the work anyway, because darn it, that’s where the fun is. The character cried out for a first name that might belong to an old man. And originally, I called him Stanley. Can you imagine, Stanley Handelman? What kind of a farce is that for a character's name? I mean, all the short vowel sounds just kind of pile up on top of each other, the hallmark of a rank amateur. And the five-syllable flow of it chopping up and down in your throat when you say it out loud is just...ouch.
But I liked the S sound at the beginning, and maybe it’s because my name starts with an S, so don’t judge, you’re allowed to like the sound of your own consonants without sounding like a dirtbag, IT’S OKAY. So I moved on to the next old man-sounding name I could think of that might suit a character who starts out as a kid and ends up as a middle-aged adult, which happened to be my grandfather’s name: Sidney. I think because I’ve heard “Sid” so much in my life, it had a comfortable familiarity to it. A warmth. Like an old sweater, or a fresh-off-the-grill Three-For-All meal deal from DQ (Google it...I lived on that stuff when I worked retail, and I was not unhappy about it). So Sid Handelman became his name, and illusion was his game—or rather, being something of an illusion himself.
But who is he, this Sid character?
Well! The sweet mystery of it all, and a detail that came to me as soon as I knew what his name and his situation were, was that Sid himself is the mystery. He blends into the background; he watches as if his life is being lived by someone else. He’s sort of pushed about the stage of his own performance as he figures out how to control his powers AND his life at the same time. He has to find his own solidity, his own visibility.
He has to transform into something real.
Which means that he’s going to develop as he’s being written. NEW METHOD! When I started braindumping (four years ago, if we’re keeping count...and apparently, we are), I ended up with 30 pages of notes and sample passages and ideas for ancillary characters, but no real descriptions of Sid, and no real interior for him. That doesn’t usually happen when I build a character. They have a list of definite attributes that help them get from point A to point Z in the story, like an action figure that I get to ZOOM! and POW! and SORRY YOU ENDED UP ON FIRE! with. Of course, they grow and change and gather more attributes as the writing moves along...that’s character development. I know what the story will be (largely), and where it needs to go (mostly), and where it will end up (and man oh man, do I ever love the ending this story wants me to tell—NO SPOILERS, but I hope you’re gonna love it, too). But with Sid, the idea of his being so blendable and so malleable and his ability to change into a million different versions of himself took over the show, and I just started writing the story as if I the Storyteller and Sid the Character were going to find out who he is together.
And guess what?
We are! We are absolutely finding out who he is as we go along his journey!
In illusionist terms, I believe we’re watching him materialize.
This is the kind of stuff that puts me over the moon to have the ability to tell stories. It’s magic, I tell you – MAGIC!
Not as magic as that DQ meal we were talking about before. But still.
It’s pretty good.