August 07, 2020
When I published The Traveler, it was a one-off story. It was safe. To publish the next story, I would need to commit to the world I had created, and a broader narrative.
The Taxi Driver was a hard story to finish.
I was confronted with a host of writing challenges in The Taxi Driver, foremost the character of Gertrude. Recently, my writing has favored female protagonists. I’m not sure why.
Perhaps it’s the challenge.
As the protagonist, Gertrude needed to be a strong, well-defined character. As a male writer, I cannot rely on personal experience or my own instincts to understand how a woman thinks.
I prize characters who feel genuine, and I tend to model their behavior after actual people from my past. It takes more than that, however. To get into a character’s soul, you have to understand how they think. Only then will they become a real, breathing person readers can recognize.
As a character, Gertrude could have been written as a man or woman. Her strength defies her circumstance, one of the familiar traits of the hero archetype. Gertrude has little to live for, and nothing left to lose.
She is backed into a corner, metaphorically speaking—a construction of fight or flight. That is the source of her strength.
But it’s her fierce independence that reminded me of several influential women in my life, so I chose to write her as a female. She adopts many of their mannerisms and personality. She is the right mix of stubbornness and defiance—yet she’s still unsure of herself.
In the end, I hit my mark. Gertrude is looking for a reason to live—something, someone, maybe a cause. Then suddenly, purpose falls out of the sky right onto the hood of her taxi.
My original draft of The Taxi Driver started with dull exposition:
“The day she met him started like most others. Gertrude Weathers walked along the alleyway, side-stepping the usual detritus which littered her path to work.
When she reached her car, she pulled back the shabby cover that protected it from rain.”
As I developed the story, I needed more characters to help move along the narrative. The purpose of my original draft was to figure out Gertrude and describe her situation. But there wasn’t enough for a story. Her environment needed character.
I found Franklin in the second draft, while asking myself: what is the usual detritus that littered Gertrude’s path? Who put it there, and how did that person experience life?
Franklin is the balance to Gertrude’s poverty. She’s right on the edge, but still works hard to improve her circumstance in a rigged society. Franklin doesn’t have that luxury, for reasons implied—but not explained—in The Taxi Driver.
Franklin is confined to a chair, but I don’t say this anywhere in the text. As you read more of Franklin in later stories, you might notice how everyone glances down towards him. He struggles with a sense of direction, and has a habit of sneaking up on people.
I went back and forth on how and when to describe Franklin’s disability, but never found a place where it worked in Taxi Driver. After a few failed drafts, it occurred to me: Gertrude sees only Franklin, not his chair.
You may notice I don’t provide a lot of physical description of my characters. To be honest, I enjoy the efficiency. I prefer to leave those details to the reader’s imagination. Let you fill in the gaps from your own experience.
I still describe my characters, but their appearance is less interesting than how they behave or talk.
There is one insignificant physical detail for Gertrude that slipped in: The neon green bolt of hair. It’s not important to the story, but it does connect Gertrude to a woman from my past. Someone whose personality provided inspiration.
During my junior year of high school I briefly dated a senior. I’ll call her M to keep things anonymous. She was fierce. Independent, stubborn, and possessing a flair for the dramatic.
M had an old fashioned name, the kind most women receive as a middle name in honor of their mother’s favorite great-aunt. A name like Gertrude.
She bleached a streak of her brown hair platinum blonde, and her favorite pair of shoes were lime-green Chuck Taylors. For a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC in 1995, this was quite exotic. Especially for a sixteen year-old boy.
In real life M was a woman at a time when I was still a boy. She was mature for her years, with a severe outlook on life. Part of a military family, she moved across the country as a teenager, and didn’t like for people to get close.
She searched for purpose. For a reason that would make sense of it all.
We lost touch after she graduated and moved away. I like to think she’s figured things out and is off conquering the world. My memory of who she was lives on in Gertrude. And maybe that’s why she reads genuine to me.
I can only hope you enjoyed her story as well.
There’s a moment where Gertrude asks Franklin to “… help me move the body”. It’s a hat tip to Gertrude’s world view , but also a sleight of hand that may lead readers to draw certain conclusions about Franklin. Conclusions that could be useful in later stories. ↩︎
Near zero chance she is reading this. But a few of my high school pals who are reading need only two words to remember her: black roses. ↩︎