Dr. Frankenstein, I Presume

Yesterday, I had a long talk about writing–its joys and frustrations–with another local writer friend of mine. She was talking about a character she created and a certain aspect of his life and how she didn’t set out to write him that way, that it was just “there.”

“He told you who he was,” I said. (No, I’m not usually that profound.)

I’ve had this conversation with other writers or heard or read other writers who say the same thing–a character you create somehow becomes his or her own entity and proceeds to tell you, “I’d really do it this way. No, no, no, I’d never say/do/believe/want that.” That character leads you down plot paths you never anticipated, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Merely, our constipated brains need the liberation provided by creating a fictional character who is our alter ego.

My main character–an Englishwoman who is a spy–gets to say things I’d never say, and I’m known for being outspoken. When your character can let loose with something society and propriety require you to keep quiet about, that alleviates a lot of pent-up frustration and keeps it from exploding at an inappropriate time. See, having your characters talk to you can be a good thing.

How do you know they’re speaking to you? When you’ve written something you think is the way you want the story to go, but then you’re pulled back to the keyboard and end up rewriting or revising or tossing out words until that story has set off in a different direction, and it’s for the good–that’s when your characters tapped you on the shoulder and said, “I think you need to reconsider.”

I struggled for a long time to find the ending for my trilogy about a domestic terrorism event, and it just didn’t come. Oh, the various attempts were good endings, but none of them was The Ending, the way the series was supposed to conclude. Then, the death of the person on whom one of the characters in the trilogy is based gave me that ending. It was as if the fictional character finally got through to me and said, “You’ve been avoiding the reality that this was the only way it could end.” And he was right.

We think we create our characters from whole cloth, but the truth is we take pieces–the good and the bad–from every person we’ve ever known or loved or disliked. We stitch them together and give them our own life-force, and they are as real to us as any flesh and blood person. They have to be. Otherwise, a reader would never be interested. They come from within us. They’re our “children.” We speak to other writers of them as if they were real and sitting around the table with us. We defend them and their actions to members of our critique groups/agents/editors. We think of them at odd times. We anticipate getting back to the story so we can see them again. We see something happen and know how our characters would react to it. They are our waking and sleeping companions, often our best friends and harshest writing critics. We are the ones who shout in triumph, as they rise from the laboratory tables in our minds, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

How about it? Do your characters speak to you? If so, leave a comment and tell me about a time when they did.


Writing Work Schedule Update:

Things are actually still going according to schedule, even with having had a nasty cold last week. On “Submission Friday” I send in two book reviews and two author interviews to a fiction magazine. This week, on the Editing/Revising days, I’ll concentrate on proofreading and finalizing the re-typed (and edited) manuscript of my collection of short stories, Rarely Well Behaved, which I’m re-releasing as an
e-book this spring–or earlier.