"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Friday, November 14, 2008

What a character

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?


Dana Fredsti said...

HAh! I love this post!
I have done both things, but it depends on how the author in question is talking about their character. Some are so self-conscious about it, so pretentious I just wanna slap them. The heck with backing out of the room, I want to CLEAR the room. But...others sound perfectly normal and I totally understand how ones characters can take on a life of their own.

Gayle Carline said...

Thanks, Dana! BTW, I love reading about all the cats. We have one ragdoll, Katie, who has endured life as a squeaky toy for our Corgi for 10 years. He jumps on her, she squeals, he's happy.

So, in addition to having "real" characters on the page, I have real (four-legged) characters at home!

Unknown said...

This is something I'm just starting to learn. Now that I've "finished" (ha, ha) the first draft of my novel, I think I'll have to go back and do some "character bibles," get to know my characters a little better, make sure they're consistent. You put it so well!

David Fitzgerald said...

Gayle, two of my cats ended up as characters in my mystery.

Poor Katie! Although if she puts up with it without whapping your Corgi a good one, she's obviously getting something out of it...

Dana Fredsti said...

Gayle, David Fitzgerald is actually me. Er..r.ather, he is my boyfriend and his account was up when I commented. D'oh!!!!

Gayle Carline said...

Dana/David - dang! I thought I had a new follower! Katie gets her revenge in the mornings when Mikey goes out for his constitutional. While he waits at the door to be let in, she eats his kibble and thumbs her kitty nose at him.

Proud Member of ALA!

I support fair and equitable library access to ebooks and so should you.