Mine, Mine, All Mine … Or Is It?

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by A.J. Brown

In my most recent work in progress I created a character named Clemmons Johansen. This guy is tall, but not so much big in girth. He is a black southern man that looks like he could have crawled right out of the 1800’s. He lives in a rundown shack off a dirt road on the edge of the little town of Century Falls. And his voice is ‘dark,’ a rich sound that holds both mystery and intimidation. Clemmons isn’t some mystical character with magic powers. He knows stuff, certainly, but the man himself is just that: a man.

He is just a character in a story. One I intend to use a few more times in other works. He intrigues me.

Here’s the thing: Clemmons Johansen is not mine. What? I make no sense? I’m using simple reasoning here when I say this–he’s not my character. Or at least, he’s not solely mine.

Am I sounding like that crazy man on the corner who talks to his hand?

Let me see if I can explain.

About a month or so ago I was discussing with a friend of mine about characters and life situations and stories. He had written a story about a woman who dies violently (that’s all the details I’m at liberty to give at the moment). I read the piece and sent him back my thoughts, one of them being that we’ve seen this before. Someone else told him the same thing. The execution of the story was good, the theme brutal, but the truth is, we’ve seen the story before. It’s played out in hundreds of pieces, in movies and in real life.

It was nothing new. To sound repetitive, it was all old hat.

Therein lies the problem with writing these days. Nothing is new. We’ve seen it all in varying degrees. The package may be different, but the story is the same.

So the discussion went on and the simple fact came up that nothing we create is really our own. No character we conjure up comes strictly from ourselves.

A couple of days later, the very same topic came up in a private forum of writers I’m a part of. Almost word for word one of the things I said was mentioned: No character is truly our own.

This is the truth how I see it. Others may disagree, but I’m not sure how they could if they actually think about it.

Everything we see, hear, tastes, feel and do is stored in our memories, which is a complex web of constantly cycling information (minus the spider, I hope). The stuff we use on a daily basis is stored at the front of this complex system. The stuff we use from time to time is stored in the next layer of our brain. The stuff we never use (which some of us call The Fount of Useless Information) gets buried deep in those memory banks only to be retrieved or triggered when something reminds us of it. From the time you are born until the time you die, all of the events that happen in your lives go into this complex webbing.

Do you follow me so far?

Let’s dig a little deeper into this web.

Clemmons Johansen is a tall man whose skin is as black as it can be. How many tall black men have you seen in your life? For me the answer is a bunch. He is bald. Umm… yup, seen a few tall, bald black men in my day. He’s not fat, but not lanky either. He has an in between build with strong arms and sharp facial features. I’m pretty certain I’ve seen all these varying physical traits on many different individuals in my lifetime. His voice is dark. I liken that to a melodious sound that even spoken softly can be intimidating. Have you ever come across someone who was soft spoken, well spoken, but also carried an authoritative air about them? That would be Johansen.

He lives off a dirt road. Been there. In a rundown shack of a house with a rotting roof and a doorway covered by an old dirty sheet. Beaded curtains anyone? Ever see a decrepit house that no one lives in on the side of the street? There are woods and a pond behind the house–I’m sure you’ve seen trees and small bodies of water before. Right?

Is it becoming a little clearer?

Our imaginations are drawn off of memories of the things we have seen or heard or tastes or felt or done. If there is a blond with her hair pulled back in a pony tail wearing a pink shirt–not just any pink, mind you, but neon–bikini bottoms and combat boots, then there is a good chance you have seen all of these things at some point or other, maybe not all together on one individual as I just described. Sure we may not recall seeing all of that, but we have, either in real life or on television or in a movie or in the pages of a magazine. It could have been just a glance at supermarket or maybe you ogled at some blond at the beach and the color of the bikini bottoms appear on the character, but it is something you have seen.

How can I say that? Simple: Without having experienced these things, you wouldn’t be able to imagine them. Go ahead, think about it.

But, what about imagining a girl with rainbow colored hair and a horn sticking out from between her shoulder blades? Have you ever seen a rhinoceros? A picture of a unicorn? Colors? A woman? Or maybe a woman’s back?

Go ahead and imagine something. Anything. And I bet I can tell you something that you may have seen or heard that helped you form that creation.

As I stated before, no character or place is truly our own. And no plot line is truly our own either. Everything is rooted in something and our imaginations fall within the category of ‘everything.’ If you have one character punch another character, there is a chance you’ve seen a fight in person (or maybe been in one) or on television or you might have even read about people fighting. All of it goes into that complex storage web to be used as material for later. Do you write romance? I’m sure you’ve seen lovers kiss and if you’re lucky, you’ve been one of those lovers kissing… and other things.

Let me take it just one small step further. They say once you learn how to ride a bike you never forget. Your memory can be like that (excluding any brain trauma that can wipe that hard drive clean). Your memory never really forgets. It suppresses, but it doesn’t really forget. Something triggers a forgotten thought and it’s brought back to the forefront of the mind.

To go back to the beginning, to my friend who wrote the story and got the comments of ‘I’ve seen this before.’ It’s the truth. We have seen it all before and if you’ve lived a little, then you’ve seen it as well. That’s why very few stories and television shows and movies have that new feeling to them. Every character is one you’ve seen in some way, shape or form. Every plot has been done in one way or another.

The trick is for us to present that already done idea in a new package, to tell it differently. But that’s for another day, another time.

Until we meet again, my friends…