I can’t remember the last time I felt so nervous.
A neat stack of printed sheets sits on my coffee table, waiting patiently for me to review them. Hidden away inside, the marks, comments, and suggestions of my few readers.
C.C., Ginette, and Lucy each read my work what feels like ages ago. And not once, since they returned it, have I peeked to see their thoughts.
Why, you ask?
Because I’m a chicken, that’s why.
What if they didn’t like it?
I attempt to shake that thought away. After reading it, all three said they’d enjoyed it.
……. But what if they really didn’t?
I blow a chunk of hair from my face.
Okay, how do I do this?
I’d taken workshop classes in college, where we all wrote something, critiqued everyone else’s, then went home with bruised egos.
But this is different.
I’m not sure how to explain why, but it is.
I sigh. Well, it’s not going to get any easier just sitting here.
I lift the first page. My eyes scan through the printed words, noting a comment here and another there. Their statements are praising, yet honest. Pen ink marks areas the readers liked, and ones they didn’t. Then they explain why.
Separate sheets of paper sit beside my bits of story. Notebook pages listing recommendations from Ginette and Lucy. They’d taken care not to mark the actual story sheets up too much, since C.C. specifically requested they not at the time.
As I read their critiques, I make marks of my own. Some of their words sting a bit, however, I’ve been preparing for it. So, the wounds last a very short time, much to my own surprise. I’d thought this would hurt more.
All in all, they mention things I already know. For example, the fact my plot needs a lot of developing. And—most prominent of all—my main character lacks a three-dimensional personality.
I recall my conversation with Ginette and Lucy on that fateful day. They’d said I should interview my main character, or some of my side characters to help. Maybe I should take their advice.
How does one interview an imaginary character, though?
I quickly snatch my laptop from my bedroom, hurrying back to the coffee table. I bring up a new blank document, feeling a quick flash of contentment at the sight of an empty page.
For several seconds, I sit, watching the cursor blink in and out of existence, as I wait for something—anything—to pop into my brain.
In the end, I get nothing.
With a heavy sigh, I close my computer again. My fingers tap along the top, a contemplative habit of mine.
A quick glance at my phone tell me it’s still early. Almost ten o’clock.
I wonder if the café’s open today.
It’d make sense if it was. After all, I’m having a bit of a writer’s struggle today. I’ve hit my proverbial brick wall yet again. Usually, the Character Café is open on days such as this.
“Just in case it is,” I mumble to myself, heading back towards my room again. From the closet, I pull a pretty blue computer bag. It was an early birthday present from my parents.
I take my time placing my computer inside. Then I clear out my purse, tucking important items, like my wallet, into the side pockets. Since the bag bears a heavy resemblance to a purse, I see no need to take another bag with me.
I hit the sidewalk a few moments later, my computer bag slung over my shoulder. I wave to Carla, the bookstore owner as I pass. She smiles and waves back.
I pass the antique store, waving to Ron as I go. The older man beams from ear to ear, returning the gesture through the window. It’s been a while since I last perused Ron’s antiques. I make a mental note to pop in another time.
My feet bear no hesitation as I cross the road to the archway, nor do I pause at the entrance. I head straight for the gated doorway, pleasantly surprised at how routine this has become.
Come On In! The small, chalkboard sign beckons, as per usual.
White chalk outlines a black mug below the ever-colorful words.
The drawing makes me pause, as I realize it’s the only thing that consistently changes with every visit.
I hurry up the stairs, drawn by familiar music as I climb. At the top landing, open doors welcome me inside.
Same dark gray walls and light gray floors. Same buttery orbs of light and midnight blue chairs. Same faces from the last few times I’ve been in.
Al sits in his corner, reading yet another novel. Jan sits at her usual table, typing and ignoring the world with the help of her headphones. A few tables down, Ginette and Lucy sit across from each other, in companionable silence.
All give me a smile and a quick wave or nod of the head as I walk towards the barista’s counter. The usual array of kettles steam in the back, like a mad scientist’s beakers.
Then again, the owner and barista of the café makes me think of a quirky, mad scientist herself. I realize how comfortable I’ve become when I immediately reach out and ring the rose gold bell. The silvery sound reverberates off the walls, and for a moment, I almost think it makes all the other metal pieces in the place sing along.
I watch the room as the sound travels through the space. And when I turn back towards the counter, I almost jump right out of my skin.
“Welcome back,” C.C. grins, her chin resting in her hand. She’s leaning on the countertop, what appears to be humor dancing inside her eyes.
“How do you do that?” And why am I taken by surprise? Every. Single. Time?
“Appear and disappear like that?” I shake my head, flabbergasted by her strange behaviors. “What, do perform magic on the side?”
She chuckles and shakes her head. “If I did, it’d give me even more cause to withhold my secrets, don’t you think?”
I shake my head and head for the stools lining the counter’s side. I slide into one and set my bag in another. C.C. gestures towards it. “What you got there? Moving in?”
“Ha ha. I brought my computer with me this time.”
She beams. “Really? Thinking about doing some writing during your visit?”
“Yes,” I nod. “And no.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“I’m having troubles,” I admit.
She frowns, popping a hip against the counter. “Troubles? What kind?”
My fingers tap against the wooden countertop. “I was at home,” I explain. “Going through the critiques I got from you, Ginette, and Lucy. And while some of the comments did burn a little, I wasn’t overly surprised by them. I mean, I already knew what was wrong with the story.” I scratch the back of my neck, frustration prickling at my skin. “They said I could interview my characters, get an idea as to who they are, or who the main character is to them. I wanted to give it a shot, but I couldn’t….” I sigh, the flustered feeling going far beyond what words could describe.
C.C. nods in acknowledgement. Somehow, I get the impression she knows exactly what I’m trying to say. “I get it.” She says, pursing her lips. “You have no idea where to start, do you?”
“No,” I admit. “I don’t.”
“Well,” she straightens, her demeanor brightening. “Why don’t you make yourself comfortable somewhere and I’ll bring you something to drink. Get your laptop all started and ready to go. I’ll be over in a minute.”
Before I can answer, she turns her back and heads for the kettles in the background.
I shrug, seeing no reason to argue. If history is any indication, she’ll have a trick up her sleeve that will help solve my problem.
I grab my bag and walk towards a couple of armchairs, a small, round table nestled between them. Within seconds I have my laptop positioned on my lap, my bag tucked along the side of my chair, and my newest, blank Word document waits for my command.
I tap my bottom lip, debating what to do.
Interview my characters. But who do I interview?
I’ve already tried “talking” to my main character in the past. And it wound up going nowhere. I got no impression as to who she is, or what her motives are. I know what she goes through, but I don’t know why.
Nor do I fully comprehend how her experiences will change her.
What about one of your other characters? A small, inner voice asks. Why not ask those closest to her? See her through their eyes.
I think of all my characters, all the ones my M.C. has the closest relationships to. I think of best friends, who feel like family to her. I think of random comrades and acquaintances. Heck, I even think of the guy who may or may not be a romantic interest for her.
No, I think. I’ll skip him. It’s way too early to try and figure that relationship out yet.
I shake my head, running hands down my face with frustration.
Who do I talk to first?
So lost in thought, I don’t notice C.C.’s appearance until the mug hits the table. I jump, my hand flying to my startled heart.
“Would you please stop doing that?”
She plops into the second chair. “Stop doing what?”
I shake my head. “Never mind.” There’s no way she doesn’t realize she does that. There’s just no way!
“What did you make this time around?” I use my chin to gesture towards the newly arrived mug.
C.C. smiles. “A nice, simple cup of hot chocolate.”
My brows arch of their own accord, curving with surprise. “No coffee this time?”
She swipes a long strand of rose gold hair over her shoulder. “I figured it’d be a good idea to try something different.”
“Didn’t you give me something different last time?” I lift the cup, inhaling the sweet, chocolatey aroma.
“Sort of,” C.C. says. She holds up a finger. “But it was still coffee.”
“I’ll give you that.” I sip the sweet drink, pulling back when something prickles my tongue. “Is there chili powder in here?”
She appears pleased at the question. “There is,” she confirms, lounging back in her chair. “I’m glad you noticed.”
I give my mouth a light fan. “How could I not?”
She laughs. “Oh, stop. There’s not that much in there.”
“No,” I admit. “But it surprised me.”
C.C. smiles. “Yes, it can be surprising what one finds hidden away beneath the surface. Aside from chili, what else do you taste?”
I take another sip, letting the flavors roll against my tongue. “Cinnamon aaaannndd…vanilla?”
“Yes!” She sits straight. “You got it!”
“Okay,” I sigh, setting the mug down. “What’s the lesson here?”
“Hm?” C.C. purses her lips, as though trying to hold back what appears to be humor. “I’m sorry, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t lie to me,” I chastise. “What’s the lesson?”
C.C. rests an elbow on the chair’s arm, resting her cheek in her hand. “I guess I have become predictable.”
An appalled snort escapes me. “Trust me. Predictable you are not. Otherwise, I’d know what you’re trying to tell me.”
She chuckles, then points towards the mug. “That’s called Aztec Hot Chocolate. Unlike regular hot chocolate, Aztec hot chocolate makes use of cinnamon, vanilla, and chili powder to enhance the flavor of the chocolate.” She gestures towards my laptop. “Your story, your characters, are a lot like that.”
I lean back in my chair, listening as she explains.
“A story needs a great plot, right? But, as far as I’m concerned, it also needs great characters. Main characters need others around them. Like the cinnamon, vanilla, and chili powder enhance the chocolate, side characters enhance main characters. Give them motivation when its necessary or reel them when the situation calls for it. They provide support, and sometimes they remind the main characters of who they are when they lose their way.” She leans her head to the side, regarding me. “Some think M.C.s are the only important people in the story. But they’re not.”
“They provide support, and sometimes they remind the main characters who they are when they lose their way.”
“So, what you’re saying is, I should talk to one of my side characters?”
A simple shrug is her response. “Do you think that will help?”
I immediately nod. “I think so. But,” I shake my head. “I don’t how to start.”
C.C. pinches her chin. “Why not start with a simple question?”
“What question constitutes as a simple question?” I lift my mug.
“What’s your main character’s favorite color?”
The mug pauses a breath away from my lips. Good question, I think. What is my character’s favorite color?
I set the mug back down. “I don’t know.”
“Think about it,” she urges. “Imagine your character. You already know what she looks like and what she goes through. Capturing the emotional state of a person, real or imagined, will always be tough. But figuring out something simple, like their favorite color, shouldn’t be too hard So, what’s your main character’s favorite color?”
I lightly tap my fingers against my keyboard. I envision my character standing in front of me, cocking her head in curiosity, as though wondering what the answer is herself.
She doesn’t know, I realize. Or if she does, she’s not offering an answer.
I’ll have to ask someone else. But who? I rub my chin, racking my brain and going through all the other characters surrounding her. That’s when it hits me. I have to “speak” to someone who knows her better than anyone else. Someone who would know the tiniest details of her personality.
Her father-figure. The man who practically raised her. Therefore, he would know her best.
I hunker down in my seat, envisioning my main character’s greatest ally. An older man around middle age.
I piece together his physical traits, building him from the ground up. Within seconds, the character stands mere feet from my chair. He crosses his arms over his chest, grinning and giving me a wink. The act demonstrates his laid back and playful nature. But beneath the care-free appearance, I can see he’s fully aware of what’s going on around him.
“What’s her favorite color?” I quietly ask him.
He swivels his body back and forth, debating the right answer. “She doesn’t really have one,” he answers. “But there is one color that does tend to catch her eye more.”
“And what’s that?”
He doesn’t answer with words. Instead, he extends an arm my main character’s direction, holding out a tight fist. Slowly, he unravels his fingers, and a white butterfly unfurls its wings in the palm of his hand.
My main character, who’s stood statue still this entire time, suddenly blinks. Her eyes drop to the butterfly in his hand, and—to my shock—smiles a small, pleased smile. The butterfly lifts from its perch, gliding closer. She reaches out her hand, and the butterfly settles on the tips of her fingers.
“White,” I whisper.
C.C. leans closer. “Hm?”
I shake myself, suddenly growing conscious of how quiet I’ve been. “Her favorite color is white.”
The barista smiles. “You figured it out.”
I nod, smiling sheepishly. “Yeah, I did.”
Simple though it is, the minor accomplishment is already making my main character appear more and more like an actual person. And not just an image made of typed up words. A spur of excitement has me grinning. I spin to C.C. “What do you think I should ask next?”
“Hmmmm,” she wriggles her fingers against the chair. “What’s her greatest quality?”
I hesitate. “That’s quite a leap, don’t you think?”
“Mm-hm.” C.C. points to my laptop. “But who you asked about her favorite color clearly knows her well. Wouldn’t they know the answer to this?”
“He would.” I affirm.
She gestures towards the laptop. “Then ask him.”
Okay. Easier said than done. But okay.
I turn back to my main character’s father figure. He stands just the way he did before. Arms crossed, but relaxed.
My main character, on the other hand, appears different somehow. She still stands still, her head slightly cocked to the side. But, this time, every now and again, she blinks. It’s a very small thing, yet it makes her appear more alive to me.
I look to him. “What would you say is her greatest quality?”
He smirks. “Her greatest quality, huh?” He glances to his right, where my main character has suddenly appeared. She doesn’t move, though. He looks back to me, his eyes filling with an emotion I can only describe as being pride.
“She doesn’t give up,” he says. “No matter how scared she might be. She’ll push through if it means protecting someone.”
“What else can you tell me about her?”
He chuckles. “That she’s stubborn. And not easily deterred by anyone.” He sobers, growing serious. “Not even by me.”
“That must get frustrating.” It’s not a question.
He shakes his head. “At times, maybe. But I wouldn’t change her. It just goes to show who she is.”
My typing fingers freeze. I peer up at him. “And who is she exactly?”
“She struggles, always has. That’s never stopped her, though. She’ll put her life on the line if it means one more person makes it out alive. She finds strength and courage in her drive to protect people.” He pauses. “Does that help?”
I bob my head. “It does.”
He flashes a smile. “Good.” He glances between my main character and me. “If you really want to know her, ask her the questions next time.”
He vanishes, making me start at his sudden disappearance. Wait….where…why did he…? I try to summon him back, but he doesn’t answer.
My eyes move to my main character, still standing in place. He wants me to ask her, I realize. I open my mouth, intending to ask her something—anything. A distant voice interrupts me.
“Hey,” it echoes. “Hey,” it prompts again, growing louder.
I jump, following the word until I find C.C. in her chair. She blinks at me, appearing confused. “Everything alright over there?”
“Yeah,” I nod. “Yeah, everything is fine.”
“Are you sure?” She cocks a brow. “You’ve been quiet for quite a while.”
I nod. “I’m fine.”
She gestures towards my laptop with her chin. “You got a lot down.”
I blink at my document, noticing for the first time I’ve successfully typed almost an entire page’s worth of information…. without realizing it
“I take it you learned some new stuff about your main character.”
I close my laptop. “Yes, I did.” I lift the white mug, gulping what’s left of the cooled hot chocolate.
“Whoa, slow down there,” she says with a laugh. “You’ll get a sugar rush.”
“I’d better go,” I say, putting my laptop back into my computer bag.
C.C. frowns. “Aww, why?”
“I type better at home. You’re right, I learned some new stuff today. I’d better hurry back and get it all down, otherwise I’ll forget.”
She grabs my mug before I can. “Alright, alright. I’m just glad I could help out.”
I follow her back to the barista counter. “You did. And I really appreciate that.” I pull my wallet from my computer bag, fishing a five-dollar bill from one of its pockets. “I know better than to offer to pay for the hot chocolate. So, I’ll leave you a tip instead.”
She grins as I shove the bill into the jar. “It took a while for you to catch on. Everyone else got the gist much faster.”
Everyone else? Does that mean….?
“Wait, do you not charge anyone for their drinks?”
She leans against the counter, and playfully shakes her heard.
“Really?” If she doesn’t charge anyone, then….then how does she keep this place open?
When I ask, she gives me a wink. “That’s my secret to tell.” She straightens, lifts my mug, and gives a little wave. “Hurry back.” She disappears through the side door. And I know, without a doubt, it’s the last time I’ll see her today. No matter how much I might wait, she won’t reappear.
I trudge towards the entrance, giving friendly nods to the others as I pass. They return the gesture with smiles of their own.
I descend the stairs to twinkling music, reading the chalk sign out front.
Come Again Soon!
I pause at the archway, glancing back towards the gated door.
It’s closed. The chalk sign is gone. And no music falls from the stairs.
In a matter of seconds, it’s locked up tight. I even wander back and give the door a tentative shake. It doesn’t budge.
The dark staircase is cold and quiet. Nothing like how it was seconds ago.
What is this café? I ask myself.
An even better question. Who is C.C.?
I hike my computer bag higher on my shoulder, exiting the archway and entering the late morning sunlight. People pass me as I walk home, and I study their features. Wondering who may or may not have entered the café at some point in time.
When I reach my apartment, I climb the stairs. My mind wanders to my main character’s father figure. He’d told me so much in such a short span of time.
“If you really want to know her, ask her the questions next time.”
“Alright,” I mumble, hand on hips. “I will.” As I remove my laptop from my bag, I remember everything my side character said about my M.C.
“She doesn’t give up. No matter how scared she might be. She’ll push through if it means protecting someone.”
I lay my computer on the coffee table, opening my previous document from the café.
“She struggles, always has. That’s never stopped her, though. She finds strength and courage in her drive to protect people.”
I imagine my main character, standing across the way from me. She cocks her head in anticipation of the questions I’m finally prepared to ask her.
“Alright,” I say, leaning back against the couch. “Let’s get started.”