Thursday, August 20, 2009


By Kelli

"Do you control characters, or do they control you?"

Simple answer: Neither. They just exist, and I channel them.

OK, I was ill last week with an upper respiratory infection and strep throat, and while I came that much closer to mortality, I promise I'm not going to go all Ouija on you.
Not even mildly
Shirley MacLaine. But this week's question about characters made me think about, well, how the hell they are just there, on the page, living a complex life that I know only a little about, that I witness and experience vicariously, painfully at times, and how and why I miss them when I end a book.

One reason I like to write series. And of course, with possibly two on the horizon, when I work on one world, I miss the other ...

And allow me to digress for a moment, for the curious among you who may still wonder where it is that I engage in the process we euphemistically call writing. (Really part sorcery, part exorcism and part subconscious spelunking, with three parts ego and a dash of intellectual discipline. That's what I think today, with copy edits on my desk, but next week I may have a different answer entirely. But I'm still digressing.)

My plotting/planning/loose construction is done on buses, in showers, hotel rooms, cars, planes, restaurants and salons--anywhere, in short, where I have time to think. Formalizing notes and research is done mainly on my heavily- decorated-with-every-tchotchke-known-to-man writing desk, complete with my unopened bottle of Old Crow Kentucky bourbon, in case I run into writer's block. My actual writing is usually done in front of my computer, which is normally in the same room as my desk, in my home, but can be anywhere if I'm traveling. I wrote a scene for CITY OF DRAGONS in a crowded restaurant in Denver when I had to get dinner by myself one evening.

I bring this up because characters speak to me through the act of writing, which can be purely thought (my family is familiar with the "her head's in her book" glazed look) or actual finger-tapping digital words on screen. They speak anywhere, and--as Sophie and Becky and Toni have all pointed out--they demand to be heard.

Actually, not all demand to be heard. Some ask politely, some wriggle uncomfortably, heads down, fussing with shoe laces. Some I have to fool into getting involved, some I have to cajole. Some shrug, and absolutely don't give a damn what I do.

Truth is, whenever someone compliments me on a book, I feel very strange--and after I thank and shower them with a thousand blessings for their kindness, I realize that I don't feel as if I actually created anything. I feel more like a biographer than a novelist. And that's because the characters really do live for me. I open up the channel and they're there.

In CITY OF DRAGONS, my protagonist did something that shocked me, truly bothered me. It's a dark book, but this was much darker than I was prepared for. But it was Miranda's call, not mine. Likewise, a minor character developed into a somewhat tragic figure--I stood by and cried when the words hit the page, a helpless witness.

I guess one of my goals as a writer is to let readers feel the same sense of witnessing, of participating and not controlling, that I do. I live in a kind of dream world when I'm working on a book--the scenes, the dialog, half-remembered glimpses of past and present, outrages unaddressed, slights unforgiven, loves not quite forgotten--all of it playing through my brain like a song I knew a long time ago. It's one reason I can't read fiction while I write. And by the time I end a novel, part of me stays in that world for days, sometimes weeks. And it's hell to reenter the present and the real at times, like falling, burning through the sky.

I'm about to reenter the world of CITY OF DRAGONS ... I have a pile of copy edits staring at me to go through, and soon, in the next few weeks, I'll be working on the sequel. I'm not sure what or who I'll find ... but it will be good to be home again.

My second book CITY OF DRAGONS releases February 2, 2010, from Minotaur.
My first, NOX DORMIENDA, is a Macavity finalist.


Jen Forbus said...

I have only one thing to say today Kelli - thanks for opening those channels to us as well! Love that you are that conduit for those of us who don't have that special contact with the characters! :)

O.k., I lied. I have one more thing. That picture with the huge typewriter is hysterical! It made me think of Tom Hanks in Big dancing on the floor piano! :)

Good luck with the edits. I'm excited for your book to find its way to print and the bookstore shelves!

Bobby Mangahas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bobby Mangahas said...

Great post Kelli.

Sometimes, I think of the fully developed characters I have as actors and I'm the writer/director. And like actors, they have their own quirks. Some are easy to work with. Others are intolerable egomaniacs. A few bring new ideas to the table while others blow you away with an unexpected, yet outstanding, performance.

Best of luck on the edits. I very much look forward to City of Dragons. And be suire to let me know if a tour brings you to Boston. We can toast your book with whiskey sours.

Kelli Stanley said...

LOL ... thank you, Jen!! :) Sometimes I feel like Madame Zenga, the Writing Medium ...

I love that typewriter photo, too--the '30s inclined to the gigantic ... not sure if it was a reaction to or result of fascist design.

For example, the 1939/1940 San Francisco World's Fair on Treasure Island had a giant cash register (I think it was something like two stories) that rang up attendance!

Am diligently going over the copy editor's suggestions and deciding which to keep and which to revert ... long process! :)

And BTW--CONGRATULATIONS on your best blog nominations (3, count 'em, 3!!!) :)

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks so much, RJ!! :) I love the actor/director analogy, too!

I've had small players steal a scene--take it over in unexpected ways.

I'm working on exploring logistics for the CITY OF DRAGONS tour, and Boston is on the list and looking very doable -- it will be great to see you, whiskey or no whiskey! :)

As for going over copy edits ... I have to look at all the changes the copy editor made and either accept or reject, plus respond to logistics questions and make sure everything makes sense. I'll probably have to disappear this weekend so I can meet my deadline! ;)


Jenna said...

Woo-woo! Woo-woo!

Nicely done, Kel. I can SO relate. I don't feel like I create anything either, the people (characters) are just there, and I write about them. Sometimes they surprise me, and sometimes they don't cooperate at all, but that's because my ideas of who they are are faulty. My fault, not theirs; they can't be anything but what they are.

Good luck on the copy edits, and on starting #2.

Jeannie Holmes said...

Great post, Kelli!

I'm happy to know mine isn't the only "heavily-decorated-with-every-tchotchke-known-to-man writing desk." I feel so much better now!

You said that your characters "just exist" and you're "channeling them. So I have a question for you: When you skip from one book to the next and new characters emerge, would that be a form of "channel surfing?" :)

Okay, that was my bad joke/pun for the day. You know I love ya! Now, I'm off to follow the bidding of the voices in my head. ;)

Jen Forbus said...

Thanks Kelli! I have to also tell you that I turned on my computer this morning to find 2 new nominations: Best Reviews and Best Writing. I was completely and utterly floored! I didn't see them coming at all and they are probably the biggest compliments of any of the awards. Holy wow! I have to go home tonight and figure out what links I'll submit for them. Yikes!!

Hope the edits are moving along swiftly! :)

Unknown said...

Hi Kelli,

Glad you are getting better! I've been really thinking hard about the answers to this question for two reasons: one, on some level, we all know that characters don't really exist except in the perception of the writer and readers, and yet even my most scientific of writer friends reports the experience as one that transcends mere projection. What's up with that, I've been wondering all week. I think it might be that, just as we put a million subconsciously-noticed clues together when we pass people on the street, allowing us to ignore the safe ones and step wide around the predators among us, even though consciously we couldn't tell you what clued us in, I think writers use that same collection of conscious and unconscious clues to create characters that then seem to take on a life of their own, precisely because the writer has done such a good job on multiple levels. The opposite of what happens in critique group, when everyone says "but she wouldn't DO that," and you realize of course she wouldn't, you just needed her to do that to serve some plot need.

The other reason I've been thinking so hard about this is that I've begun to notice that my utter lack of faith is making it hard to write (along with an apparent lack of ego -- in tech writing, an attribute that's highly praised, but in fiction seems to be a real problem!).

Of course, I do have faith in some things -- our species ability to be kind and generous in response to cruelty, our hard-wiring for altruism, and the utter insanity of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (when you think of them as merely obeying natural laws, like people with autism, then it becomes easier to figure out how to cope with them), but the sort of faith in Santa Claus and God that others were taught as children is just absent for me. I guess that means that I've never had to cope with shattered faith, either...

Dale suggests that an utter lack of faith is a great flaw for a protagonist ;)

Anyway, thank you guys for making me think and feel so hard. I'm a total fan of this salon!!!


Shane Gericke said...

RJ's right--some characters are easy to work with, and some are pains in the tuchis. As it should be, as characters should mirror life.

Shane Gericke said...

Jen, congratulations on the blog nominations. VERY cool. I like the heartsy things on your log line, too.

And Mysti, thanks for your continuing support of us through your own writing process. I think you meant "saloon" instead of "salon," though. I'm just sayin' :-)

Unknown said...


Saloon has fewer bad connotations than salon no doubt!

I've been trying to find folks who will talk about their sense of poetics, but it's just not done these days, I guess. It's what I miss most about grad school, I think :)

Now I've got Saloon on the brain!


Rebecca Cantrell said...

Hey Kelli,

*queue seance music here*

I will pull protoplasm from the air and it will turn into a character from the beyond.

*end seance music*

Yet, surprisingly apt. Thanks, as always, for your insight!

Great to have you here and joining the party, Mysti! It feels like old times.

And Jen: Congratulations!!!

Kelli Stanley said...

Ah, Jennie, me love, thanks for commenting!! I'm just home from the day job, which is channeling of a whole 'nother kind. ;)

And so true ... characters can't be anything but what they are, whether we approve of them or not. All we can do is chronicle ...

Thanks for the good luck on going over the copy edits--laborious, tedious, frustrating, and oh, so necessary. My copy editor was wonderful and caught some continuity issues -- and the character sheets will help keep me on track for book 2! :)


Kelli Stanley said...

Jeannie, sweets, I'm glad to know I'm not alone! I like to call my desk an art exhibit, because that's what it is--the clutter is tastefully arranged (at least I like to think so), and all of it is meaningful, either gifts or things I've picked up on travels or something useful (like the bottle of Old Crow!) ;)

You know, about those voices ... ever wonder why some people get locked up for hearing them and we get to sign books? ;)


Kelli Stanley said...

Jen, FANTABULOUS!!! That makes five nominations--holy cow!!! :)

I hope you're going to do a little celebrating this weekend--you so deserve it. Your wonderful blog is a gift to the entire community, and it's just so cool to see it recognized!!



Kelli Stanley said...

Ah, Mysti ... darlin', one of these days we will get to head to a real saloon and have a good bitch session about the Board of Stupidvisors.

And I am TOTALLY with you on the hard-wiring for altruism--Desmond Morris espoused that theory, and I've always believed it. We want to cooperate with one another--it's a survival mechanism!

As far as faith is concerned ... we need to take you on an actual Ghost Expedition. When I saw my camera turn on and off by itself (while I was wearing it and watching it), I accepted the fact that rationality doesn't explain a whole heck of a lot. ;)


Kelli Stanley said...

Shane, dearest, I can't wait to hit up the Bouchercon saloon with you!! :)

Wear your cowboy hat, OK? Pretty please? ;)


Kelli Stanley said...

Ecch. Protoplasm. ;)

Thanks, Becks!! The hardest part of any channeling is always cutting it off. Did I ever tell you the story about what happened on that New Orleans Ghost Expedition?

If not, I'll save it for the Bouchercon saloon ...

Hope you're feeling better, sweetie!!