Consider the Two-headed Coneflower: Character and Oddity

There’s a two-headed coneflower in our garden. A hardy perennial, the coneflower grows abundantly around here. It withstands the heat and drought of long Mississippi summers, withstands neglect (I am proof of that), and practically grows itself.

The coneflowers and their little rudbeckia cousins (black-eyed susans) all surfaced early this year because of the mild winter, but this particular plant outgrew all the others. It’s a bit of a freak. For weeks I watched it grow taller and taller and waited for it to flower. Even its foliage looked different, and I decided maybe it wasn’t a coneflower at all but a weed. At one point it looked suspiciously like a thistle, and I almost pulled it up. When it finally bloomed early in April, it bore these two conjoined flowers on one stem.

So here’s the metaphor; I bet you were expecting one, weren’t you?

The flower’s oddity, its two-headedness, reminds me of how I develop fictional characters. Right now, I’m dealing with a character who’s very hard to like. He’s deceitful, cruel, and violent. He’s a drunk. He’s a racist. He’s a dastardly fellow if ever there was one. As I revise the novel, though, I find myself looking for reasons why this man is the way he is. What caused him to turn out this way? If I asked him, what would his excuses be? I’m looking for his secrets, his oddities, his other side, his vulnerability, his soft underbelly. Surely he must have one. When I find it, the character and the book will be richer for it.

Even after heavy rain over the last few days, that odd coneflower is still there. A bit bedraggled, but hanging on. The other plants, about a third its size, aren’t even close to blooming yet. That’s how I feel some days when the writing doesn’t go so well or there’s no time to work. Maybe that strange, tenacious flower is a gift; it’s here to teach me to look for what sets a character apart. To persevere, no matter what.

What are your favorite tricks for getting to know your characters? I’d love to know. Please post your comments!

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