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The Reluctant Puppetmaster

Yo, yo little brother, what you out here trying to discover

I’m working on my new book and as I was driving and thinking through a particularly difficult plot line, this song, “Yo Little Brother,” from the mid 80s came on the radio. (1984 to be exact and it hit #57 on the Billboard Hot 100.) It caught my attention—of course I remember when it came out. Now it resonated perhaps because at that moment, listening to that song, I was that little brother, out here trying to discover…what?

I suppose the short answer is I am trying to discover my characters—what their thoughts are, their passions, what drives them to behave as they do. What secrets do they hold, and keep from me? And I wondered, what, as I do with each book, writing this one, I would discover about myself.

I checked every place I thought he might of gone
Until I came across a house with something going on
I looked in the window there was brother and his crew
And he was doing everything a little brother shouldn’t do

My characters can be difficult, untrusting, closed, refusing to tell me much at least until we’ve spent some time together and they begin to trust me to listen and tell their story in the way it must be told. Until that time I stride along the edges or their world, peeking into that window, under that shrub, behind that door. Often, at first, I find nothing, but I keep walking and listening and looking until I come across that house with something going on.

I do a lot of research for my books and this new one is no exception. I like doing research. It frees my mind to wander while I learn something new—something that helps me put flesh on the bones of my characters, or shed a light in their situation. Having listened to the song on the radio, I tracked it down on YouTube to watch it. I vaguely remembered it. Then I found a loose thread that mentioned that the young blonde, oddly plastic-looking singer in the video, Nolan Thomas, was not actually singing the song. He was lip synching to the vocals sung by Elan Lanier, who, by the way, was black.

Apparently the video’s producers felt that Nolan would be more “marketable” than Elan. As I watched Nolan skipping through the video’s pastel, occasionally surreal, landscape like a fever dream, I watched his lips moving to another’s words, watched his mouth open and close to emit another’s voice. With his plastic looks and bleached hair he looked like an animated puppet, Pinocchio cast as a not quite real boy. And perhaps the absolute falsity of his looks, his singing, the trippy landscape, was all deliberate. But it made me reflect on the fear I always have with my characters—especially with this new book: How do I make them real? Make them themselves. I don’t want puppets lip-synching to me. I want their dialogue, their stories, to be their own, authentic.

I remember when I was writing Unbroken. I created the character of Maritza, Jose’s younger sister. Originally she was just supposed to show up at their dorm room, announce her hopeless and ill-fated crush on her brother’s boyfriend then, having discovered her brother’s secret, fade into the landscape. But Maritza had other ideas and a bigger story which she kept whispering to me until she became, in the end, a major character. And she made the book a better, more human, book.

I am a writer; I am also a reluctant puppet master. That may make me weak, but I hope it makes for better characters, and better, more honest, stories.

Watch the video for "Yo, Little Brother" here

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