Bartender and songwriter Kelli Foster had always kept her eyes trained on the dream of stardom as a means to escape her small-town life. That focus blinded her to threat right in front of her: a bar patron who lulls her into a false sense of security and abducts her for a shadowy organization, taking her to a cabin in the middle of nowhere.
Desperate to escape and return to the world she thought she knew, Kelli bides her time, complying with her captors as they force her into a dream world where she must unravel the meaning of a song to free a hostage trapped inside a tree. Failure to free the hostage means only one thing: death, for her and the hostage.
Joined by an important test subject whose sanity unravels almost from the start, Kelli attempts to free them both. When the escape fails, Kelli’s life becomes even more difficult, and she learns that her assumptions about her life – and the world itself – could all be false. As events spiral out of control, Kelli finds herself caught in a battle between godlike beings that hold her fate, and that of the entire Organization, in their hands.
This is the first time we see one of Kelli’s visions, following a an injection of the mysterious hallucinogen.
Something rustled in the corn. I whirled, but I knew who it would be before she even appeared. She always found me. “Mimi?”
A little girl appeared from between the rows, pushing the bottoms of the stalks apart. She had blue eyes, dark brown hair, and a smile that could just melt your heart – the kind of smile that never, ever survives into adulthood.
She cocked her head. “How’d you know my name?”
She always asked me that.
“We’ve met, but I’ve told you that before, too.”
She put her hands on her little hips. “How come I don’t remember you?”
“I think it’s this place. It always makes you forget.”
“I don’t like that.”
I looked around. “I don’t like it much, either. But don’t worry about it. I’m here.”
Wheels turned in her head. “But why are you here?”
No clue how to answer that one. “You’re looking for something, right?”
I leaned down, putting my hands on my knees. “What are you looking for, sweetheart?” I already knew the answer, but this had gone down a certain path forever, and the show had to go on.
She rubbed her eyes. “Cici’s gone. I can’t find her.”
Cici. The girl forever searched for Cici. I had no idea if she even existed. “Now where did you last see your sister?” I said.
Her eyes widened, like I’d shown her the secret of the universe. “We did meet, didn’t we, that’s how you know about Cici?”
I nodded. “Where did you see her last?” Knew the answer to this one, too.
She pointed over my shoulder. “There.”
I knew what I’d see when I turned. I’d seen it so many times that I’d even started to see it in my dreams. It didn’t matter, though. Every single time I turned to gaze on it, it knocked me on my proverbial butt: an enormous, gnarled tree, soaring up into the sky. This wasn’t just any tree, though. Somebody had carved a wooden organ out of the trunk, with two levels of wooden keys and wooden pipes rising out of the higher reaches.
The largest keyhole you’ve ever seen had been connected to that organ, its details carved right into the trunk, between the keys and the pipes.
“She’s locked in there, isn’t she?”
One of the definitions of “Character” that I’ve always loved is “the distinctive nature of something”. While characters in novels and movies often go by the other common definition, that is, “the mental and moral qualities of an individual”, so many of them to miss out on that distinctive nature part. We all know that no two people are alike, but the real question is how. How are you different from the guy that you just passed in the street, or the woman in the next cubicle who sings along with her music even with her headphones on? That’s the question that good writers constantly have to ask not only of themselves, but of everyone around them.
I write genre fiction and, whether fair or not, genre fiction has a reputation for being plot-driven, with a lesser focus on characters and I must admit that there are times when my chosen genre (dark fantasy) demands that a story grab hold of a character and pull her along. I love literary fiction, but I also don’t think that such scenarios constitute a crime. These plot-driven moments only become a problem when plot turns into contrivance. I’m tempted to say that good writers can spot these moments, but it’s more a matter of experience rather than skill. Even the most talented author may be tempted to let the plot drive every little detail – and that just doesn’t work if you’ve crafted compelling characters.
That’s the trick, though! How to craft those compelling characters? Character should be, after all, the central demand of creating fiction. I use a bag of tricks to create strong characters and then always – always – consult those characters’ needs when writing the story.
My first published main character was Matty DiCamillo, a green-haired lesbian punk-rock artist in her early 20s who felt trapped in her late night convenience store job. She was a mixture of many different people that I’ve known, along with some of my own foibles. Her sexuality and no-nonsense attitude came from a good friend’s sister. The artistic punk rock side of her came from a former coworker, and the green hair and feeling of entrapment actually came from my own early 20s. Pull a detail here, cop an attitude there, and suddenly you have a whole new person that lives and breathes because she has unique traits that are tried and tested in the real world.
I strongly believe that a good story is a blend of effective plot-driven and character-driven moments, stories where you can go from all-out shoot-outs between opposing factions to a character baring her soul to another and finding some kind of solace from the catharsis. Like a good song, stories thrive in both the flourish and the minor movement. Good characters do that for you.
Jonathan D Allen
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