Before I tried writing an entire novel, I used to listen to authors talk about their characters as if they were real people, and I admit, I wanted to smile and nod while I slowly backed out of the room. I mean, at the very least they sounded a little too precious to hold a serious conversation. And some of them sounded plain old-fashioned nuts.
And then I wrote a novel. I began with good intentions and a basic plotline: a young, shy girl hits the road, grows up, and finds her spunkiness. It could be fun, or literary, or even literary fun.
I created a girl, Beth, who has a domineering mother, a libertine for a boyfriend, and an unsatisfying job. I thought these elements would naturally force her to leave town and allow her to blossom on the road. Except that Beth proved to be too passive. I had to practically burn down her house to get her out of town. I tried to get her anger up, to give her some righteous indignation over being micro-managed by her mother, ignored by her father, and casually cheated on by her boyfriend, but every time I tried to put words in her mouth, they sounded false. The only way her voice was true was when it was passive, denying that things were as bad as all that.
Once she hit the road, her car broke down in Amarillo (she was traveling from Illinois). My plan was for her to stop in a town I knew. I don't know Amarillo. I've visited there exactly once - my family drove into town at 10 p.m., got up the next day and visited the American Quarter Horse Museum, ate breakfast at Cracker Barrel and hit the road. I thought perhaps she could wrangle a different car and continue on the road. But Beth is no wrangler. She accepts whatever is offered, and what is offered is a waitressing job. So now I'm stuck in a strange city.
I kept trying to force Beth to grow a backbone, and leave Amarillo. But the words were forced, false, wasted. Instead of leaving for Taos at the end of the book, she falls in love with a cowboy, a character I hadn't even created when the book began.
It took me 90,000 words, but I finally learned my lesson. Your characters are real people, in that, once you set up their personality and their history and their basic parameters, there are physical laws you must obey in their actions and dialogue. Beth could not change as completely as I wanted her to, because she was shy and passive and damaged by her upbringing. A couple of weeks in Amarillo would not bring out her spunk.
This was a good lesson to learn when I started writing Freezer Burn. Benny Needles began life as a seedy, slimy, little man with no redemptive qualities. He hires Peri (my protagonist) to find his Dean Martin-autographed ice cube tray. I even toyed with making him a serial killer. But once he started interacting with Peri and the police, he took on a more human form. He became an OCD personality who is a rabid Dino fan. He was suddenly misunderstood, a social outcast who was basically a sweet guy. He may or may not have killed someone (not to spoil the plot), but he's not the sleazebag I envisioned. Seeing him evolve that way meant I had to re-visit the first part of the book to soften my description of him, and Peri's early responses to his requests.
But it was okay now. I was able to accept these characters as real people and adjust the story to their true natures.
For any of you who are writers - is this a common occurrence, or have you already slowly backed out of the room, nodding and smiling at me?