When I was invited to speak at the Scribbler’s Retreat Writers’ Conference in St.Simons Island, I accepted, though I hadn’t a clue how to give a speech. The last time I stood in front of a group to give a formal talk was during a speech class freshman year in high school. We were supposed to give a demonstration speech, I remember, and I decided to be clever. So, when my scheduled day came, I stood in front of the class and announced I was the representative of the Emperor’s New Clothes Manufacturing Company. I held up one invisible garment after another and proceeded to describe every style, every fabric, every frill. When I finished, the teacher frowned at me and said, “Your speech was very good, but it would have been better if you had used real clothes.”
Just goes to show you, one shouldn’t try to be too clever. And I took that to heart when I wrote my speech on “Creating Incredible, but Credible, Characters” for Scribbler’s Retreat. It was simple, more of an introduction to the art of creating characters than a full-blown exposition. I wanted to spend most of my hour showing them how to create great characters, not telling them, so I prepared a character questionnaire to help them delve deeper into the social, physical, and psychological aspects of their character. My plan was to have them create a character as a group so they could see how conflicts, plot, and subplots grow along with a character.
I didn’t have time to practice my speech before I left, so I figured I’d do it on the plane. Yeah, right. It had been so many years since I’d flown that I didn’t realize how impossible it was to do anything on a flight except get through the hours. When my idea of studying my speech on the plane didn’t work out, I figured I could do it once I got to St. Simons. That would have been a good idea except for . . . Did I mention this was a resort area? Right on the ocean? In the south? I went for a walk on the beach, and happened upon a trolley leaving for a tour of the island. I hopped aboard and was entertained with tales (and some tall tales) of the island’s history. When we returned, I was still in tourist mode, so I went to the lighthouse, and walked up all 129 steps to the top. And so the time went.
Despite not studying my speech, I wasn’t nervous. Until . . .
I’d met fellow speaker Chuck Barrett, author of The Savannah Project, so I particularly wanted to hear his speech, which came right before mine. He talked about point of view, a difficult topic that he handled well, and at the end, everyone applauded. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that people would applaud at the end of my speech, and that thought panicked me. So I went to the front of the group, thanked the woman who introduced me, and froze. Just for a second. Then I remembered that this was my party, and I could do what I wanted, so I smiled, told the story about my Emperor’s New Clothes Speech, and sailed right through the rest of my talk. I think I might have stammered a few times, but people were kind. Then, when we got to the questionnaire, I dazzled!!
Well, it was more that the audience dazzled me. When they caught on to what we were doing, their eyes lit up, and I knew I had them. Many people contributed to our character — a beautiful 27-year-old woman of French descent and a shady past. A certain fellow in her life wanted her to make them a fortune as a stripper, but she was resisting him. She wanted a simpler life, the life of a writer. She had a best friend, who loved her, and a sister who hated her. And she had a daughter she’d given up for adoption when she was sixteen.
We could all see this woman, as if she were a part of the group. Afterward, several people told me that I helped them see how to overcome problems they were having with their own characters, which is exactly what I’d hoped for. Oddly, I can’t remember the applause. I only remember looking at each of the participants and thanking them for making the experience so wonderful.