Thursday, August 28, 2014

Character Creation: Cheesy Broccoli Casserole

A story is food for the mind. A drabble is an amuse-bouche, satisfying to the palate but not the stomach. A novel is a multi-course meal, with tastes that complement each other and segue into the next part.

Characters are the ingredients. You combine a little salty, a little sweet, a little bitter, a little sour, a little umami. Umami is a Japanese loanword, for pleasant savory tastes, like meat or onion sauteed in water with a little salt. It’s what makes a meal satisfying, and what makes a character feel real and stick with you.

So a novella can be taken as cheesy broccoli casserole. One dish, consumed in a single sitting. Not as many complexities as a novel, not as many twists and turns and things to synchronize. Importantly to all of this, I need to know what I’m making before I start: ingredients aren’t important until they’re used.

I start with the pasta and the chicken. The pasta is a fairly straightforward character, who’s gone through some hard times and lost some stuff. The pasta’s tragic, boiled backstory has to stop before they’ve gone completely limp. They still need to have some body in order to support the other characters and work well as a group. It’s also important that the pasta be properly drained: having pasta water floating around makes everything lose coherence and draws too much attention to a single character. Their backstory contributed to who they are, but it isn’t the totality of their character.

The chicken has a different sort of backstory, one of murder and personal tragedy and exposure to medium-high heat until thoroughly cooked. Even though the chicken and the pasta both have horrible backstories, they aren’t the [i]same[/i] horrible backstory. Identical characters unbalance the whole dish, no matter how exciting the shared story is. The chicken then gets sliced into smaller chunks. The size of the chunks depends how much I want the dish to be about identity politics, how much I’m okay with having big chunks of narrative devoted entirely to this one character.

The broccoli is a big part of the story, and is usually the main character. It knows the pasta, usually, has a bit of a shared history in that it, too, went in the boiling water. But the broccoli was only in there for a little while, and it only made the broccoli more vibrantly green. Some of the brittle rawness of the broccoli is gone, but it’s still crunchy with vigor and determination. The freshness makes for a good YA protagonist, a fighter that everyone can root for.

The shredded cheddar is not a tragic character, and is part of the glue that holds the group together. Even a glue character, though, one that facilitates group cohesion and keeps our ingredients together when they want to fall apart, can’t have that as their only identity: they need their own sharpness, and enough of them needs to show up in the story that their personality is on display.

Campbell’s 98% Fat Free Broccoli Cheese Soup is our supporting cast, our environment. The minor, supporting characters should at least imply that they can and do exist separate from the story, that they don’t stop existing when the main characters stop needing them. The soup is much improved by using it as a casserole ingredient, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist on its own. The helpful innkeeper might be married to the surly coachman, or cousin to the secret informant with the critical information. It doesn’t need to be on display - we don’t need to make broccoli cheese soup from scratch just to throw it in the casserole - but it should at least be implied. The supporting cast should be dumped all over the other ingredients and mixed well, because our main cast doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Seasonings are part of atmosphere and setting, but they’re also important to character: salt is something some people avoid out of health concern or prudishness, but it highlights different aspects of character. Sexual content isn’t a bad thing on its own, and can show up different sides of an ingredient, but it’s at the discretion and to the personal taste of the cook. How much salt I use varies - by mood, by how fresh the broccoli is, by whether I want to feel like I’m eating something with pretensions at health or want intensely comforting food. Audience matters, and influences character and cookery in various ways.

Garlic is part of worldbuilding, too: it adds umami and brings the whole together, but overdoing it and giving it too much space in the casserole means that only very particular palates will like it. Foul language can also be peppered in at the discretion of the author, with the knowledge that it pairs differently with each individual ingredient.

After cooking in the story for 45 minutes at 375, the ingredients are still recognizable, can still be pinpointed, can even be enjoyed on their individual merits. But it’s the whole that’s important, and they only serve the whole. The characters can no longer be extricated from the story. Even if I were starting with the same building blocks, the same basics of tragic-but-strong or my-whole-family-is-dead, the details would change with the dish, because the story as a whole comes first, and the characters are only there to further it, and there can frequently be substitutions.

Saturday, August 2, 2014


I didn’t watch horror growing up, and thought the genre was mostly faceless killers and shock stuff - cheesy gushing blood and dead cheerleaders. I was turned off by the whole concept, even aside from the lure it should have had as something that was forbidden in our house.

My first horror movie was Ghost Ship, which made me jump but didn't have any lasting emotional impact. A couple years later, I watched The Haunting. The Haunting made an impact - I wasn’t all that horrified, but I was amazed that it wasn’t a ‘proper’ happy ending, and I loved that death and transmutation were Eleanor's happy endings.

I didn’t really get into horror in any kind of meaningful way for about a decade after that, but now, years later, I watch Hannibal and Teen Wolf (the MTV show; yes, it’s horror), and love stories where the monster isn’t an external threat.

A large part of it is that I like the idea that we can all be monsters, given the right circumstances and motivations. That idea is intrinsic to both shows, like the second season of Hannibal where most of the FBI characters are drawn into Hannibal's web, and almost the entirety of Teen Wolf, where our beloved hero has attempted to kill his best friend on more than one occasion. Teen Wolf makes for an easier metaphor, here, because the metaphors at work are utterly transparent: the main character is bitten and turned into a werewolf. A lot of his internal struggle - and the struggle of other characters - is to not let that define him, to not let his monstrous nature make him do monstrous things.

There are external threats, of course, because that's what makes them lose their shirts and get extra powers, but it's a recurring theme that they struggle against themselves, that all of the characters try to remain themselves, try to work towards being better versions of themselves, despite the parts of them that say rending and killing and dumping the bodies in the woods is a really excellent solution to every problem.

Just as important, though, are the times they give in to the monster inside, and do terrible and horrifying things, and have to live with the aftermath. The thing I love about Teen Wolf in particular is that monstrous and terrible things are not the domain of men alone: one young woman gives in to grief and tries to kill a bunch of people, and another takes several years to even re-accept humanity at all, and another comes into knowledge of her own powers and acceptance that she might have to kill someone almost simultaneously. And young women becoming monsters and then grappling with that is a narrative I want to see more and more of, everywhere, because it's amazing. Meghan McCarron did a really fantastic interview with Kelly Link here about young women and monsters and The Vampire Diaries.

When young women are monsters, they become compelling, in part because literal monstrousness is a perfect externalization of the internal growth we grapple with as part of coming of age, and too much about femininity is still considered internal, private, something to be hidden. Black Swan embodies a lot of conventional femininity, at the same time dramatizing and externalizing it in ways that make it utterly compelling: ballet is considered intensely female, and it's a female-dominated movie, and most of the ballet company are women, and almost all the important interactions are between women. But, on the other hand, a lot of the major conflict occurs primarily internally to the main character. The physical changes she perceived were manifestations of psychological pressure.

More literal monstrousness brings femininity more into the open, erases some of the still-persistent separate-sphere ideology, and makes the problems of the young woman characters everyone's problem rather than something she has to struggle with on her own.

Becoming a monster means more and better and harder choices, and more freedoms, and I think that's beautiful, especially as an option for more and more women.