Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Note to Self: Get the Hell Out of My Way

By Sophie
Do you control your characters or do they control you?

I've mentioned before that I am not a fan of those crazy exercises where you "interview" your character or "take her out on a date" and so forth. If other writers find them effective, great - whatever works. 

But for me, characters exist already and always have, burbling away deep in the primordial stew of Me, little golems knitted of impressions and experiences and a fair measure of the inexplicable. The job is more excavation than creation, and structure and planning  just gum up the works.  What I need to do is to get the hell out of my own way, and then the characters are free to bob up to the surface. 

Actually, I think they wait like the little green Claw-worshiping aliens in Toy Story, longing to be plucked, to be chosen. Characters have a strong lust for life - at least, mine do; once launched, they are utterly fervid until they've been committed to paper. They demand to be fully drawn and will not let me rest if the impressions are incomplete or inaccurate, and that is a good thing because it keeps me in the chair until I get them right.

I had a character in a book I wrote around four years ago (it never sold) who was vindictive and brittle with a gift for moments of acute cruelty. I knew her well: what she wore, how she did her hair, how she spoke to her family. I spun her out through the book with relative ease, and at the end I was surprised to find that something was missing. It wasn't that she was flat or one-dimensional; that isn't my usual problem. She was plenty complex. She was just incomplete.

I had to start a second book, a sequel, to get to the heart of the problem. I was 70,000 words into it before I realized that I was really just conducting an elaborate character inquest, trying to figure out what I'd missed. I finally found it (would take too long to explain, but in short I had her motivations wrong and that left room for growth that was never evident in the first book) and then I set the entire thing aside, no longer interested in the story once I'd solved the character puzzle. (Well, it wasn't much of a story, to be honest.)

So it's not the characters that control me, but the imperative to know them well enough. How well is well enough? Ah, that's a discussion for another day...


Jen Forbus said...

That's the beauty of a series! Many books to get to know a character, watch him/her grow and change, etc. I firmly believe that is why I gravitate toward series. I have loved many a stand alone novel, but when I truly connect with a character (one of my standards of a great book) then I don't want that character to be gone after the last page. I want to know we're going to hang out together again...and again...and again! I just love this question this week!! :)

Bobby Mangahas said...

I love your Toy Story analogy Sophie. I never thought about about it like that. Hooray for little green claw-worshiping aliens!!!

Sophie Littlefield said...

Y'know Jen, I think you're right, that is the #1 best thing about writing in (or reading) a series. From book to book, I rarely remember plot, but I love watching the characters grow and change.

I do think Elizabeth George is truly one of the most extraordinary writers I've ever read because she managed to develop a large group of series characters over time...BUT they never overshadow the individual one-off character arcs that dominate each book.

Now that's a hell of a trick.

Sophie Littlefield said...

R.J. - Thanks! :) I kinda liked that one too. Weird how often the best writing analogies are the...well, dumbest.

Jenna said...

Glad to hear I'm not the only one who works this way. Synopses and outlines and proposals are hell when you learn about your characters as you write about them.

Unknown said...

I think as a reader the most memorable characters are those who make us ask "what is the *deal* " and who of course also make us feel like sticking around to find out the answer. And with any luck, never quite finding out EVERYTHING :)

As a writer, I've had the most trouble with characters who were based on people whose behavior confused me. One whole screenplay had to be shrunk to a short story, because I could really only figure out a moment's worth of the character (who had of course stopped being her real-life counterpart about three paragraphs in).

thanks for the great image Sophie. I think I'll be kinder to my characters knowing they just want to get out of the globe and worship the claw :)


Shane Gericke said...

Your characters are claw-worshiping aliens. Mine are like the Eddie Murphy donkey in the movie going, "Me! Pick me!"

Great posting, Sophie.