One of the best things about life is all the characters you get to meet along the way. It’s also a great reason to write books. As many authors will attest, characters in stories are not creations; they are people, with minds of their own. The fact that they don’t have bodies in our world is not relevant at all; some of my favorite people don’t have bodies in our world. What they do have is personality, and a startling amount of free will. They don’t always agree with how the story is going in your outline or in your head, and failing to listen to them can result in the most dire of consequences. They can turn from your best hope of a champion to your most clear antagonist with a swift act or comment. A good character will almost always take the author by surprise at some point.
You know, like people do.
This is not as scary as it sounds. It’s a strange relationship, to be sure, but not scary. It’s like having a great friend that takes you places you would have never thought to go, or a series of them. Those places aren’t always pleasant, but there’s always a reason to go there if a character is heading in that direction. Letting them take you there is a great exercise in letting go and leading the way all at the same time. It’s their story that you’re writing, after all; that story needs to be a collaborative effort, even if your round table needs to sit several fictional people.
I say fictional; I don’t use that word when I think of these stories or characters, and I certainly don’t bandy it about at the round table meetings in my head. That would just be rude. Since I’m fond of not having my arms strapped to my sides, and white is not my color, I’ll play along and continue to refer to my friends as fictional for the purpose of this discussion.
So, how do you collaborate with someone who doesn’t have a voice anywhere other than in your head? Start writing, and keep writing. There will be times when you are trying to say something that isn’t quite right, or they will be trying to communicate something that isn’t completely clear…keep writing, and get through it. The only person who knows how many times you had to rewrite a chapter to properly express all of the points of view being represented is you; but everyone that reads the book will know if the one that makes it in there is grabbing them by the…well, whatever part of your readers you’re trying to grab.
Before outlining, I think a lot on a story. I try to meet the characters in whatever way they are comfortable with meeting, and spend some time with both them and the story before writing anything down. I’m a big fan of meditation, and daydreaming, and luckily most folks expect such strangeness from a Pisces; but I don’t know how I would write without these invaluable tools. Of course, I know that staring into space and scratching my beard doesn’t fill the pages; but it fills in the blanks in the story, and fills my mind with considerable details that will never make it into the book. From there, filling the pages is mostly about taking the time.
There is a give and take when it comes to any art, a fine line that must be walked between pushing forward and pulling back. Most artists speak of those moments where the art seems to create itself with a kind of fearful awe…it’s when the best work gets done, when the artist puts themselves so completely into the creating that they get lost somehow in the process. A certain magic starts to flow, and something appears under their trained hand that is beyond what even they imagined. That’s when you know you’re doing it right, when all of those elements come together and cause normal thought to fall away. One of the greatest gifts of making anything creatively is when the creation takes hold of the process and the artist and takes both to the next level. There’s that fear…how will I ever top this? It wasn’t even me doing the writing!
Keep writing, remember? It turns out that this is the answer to pretty much any author quandary. When we go back to the page again the next day, we know that we have shown up at least. When we start filling those pages, day after day, that fear morphs into trust. It keeps happening! There is no more worrying about whether or not yesterday’s work can be topped; there’s just intense curiosity, wondering what great gift the muse has for us today. And trust in a process that is as elusive as quicksilver and more precious than gold.
The outline can be as simple or as complicated as you want, as you know. It’s a great place to discuss where things are headed, and how everyone is going to express themselves as they do. My outline is always done in pencil, with lots of room to put all the notations in that I want to make sure get into the chapter. Those little bubbles that surround my synopsis of each chapter may as well be thought bubbles, as I listen to what everyone has to say in their fictional way.
When the outline is done, and all the changes made, I read the synopsis for chapter one and start writing. Since switching from longhand to an Appletop, changes are more easily made there as well. At this point there aren’t many, though; just the occasional surprise tossed in there by someone who apparently thought I needed a good shaking up.
Someone fictional, of course.
Getting a good idea of what you can expect is the outline’s job, and it’s an important one. But an outline is like a forecast; it’s not necessarily predicting the actual weather. Even if it’s predicted sunny, smart travelers bring some rain gear. Smart authors should be prepared for anything; with the kind of stuff I write sometimes, I definitely don’t want to get caught without a slicker…many of the showers I have written about have been bloody ones.
Characters can keep secrets, just like people. I didn’t know that a main character was going to die once, and I got very upset when I found out. What I had outlined as a rescue scene turned out to be a failed rescue, much to my surprise. As one of my favorite (fictional) friends slipped away, I felt completely helpless despite me being the one doing the writing. I felt betrayed, too, as I torpedoed into a funk; the story and the character had both kept me in the dark about this right up until it happened. I flipped forward in the outline, and saw that it had been staring me in the face all along. He wasn’t in any of the upcoming chapters, and I hadn’t even noticed.
Thinking on it, in my funk, I realized that it had all been for the best. I would have fought the event, or tried to make it so it didn’t have to happen. But it did have to happen, and the story knew that was the only way to slip it past me. Once it was written, I saw why it was best that way. I got out of my funk and got back into the story, with a new level of that trust we talked about earlier. It was part of me learning that surprises happen for the author in big ways sometimes, and that the best thing to do is be surprised.
And keep writing.
It’s time now for one of those round table meetings to take place, and a dozen voices to come together on the best way we might all speak as one. With the ‘Year of the Zombie’ heading towards wrapping up, next year’s ideas are already testing out their voices in my head. There are a bunch of new folks that I will be introducing readers to next year, and a world or two that need blueprints before they can be built.
That’s what we’ll be talking about next week, by the way. Any great story builds its own world in some way; but many stories require that we go to great lengths to build the world they take place in for the reader. An author needs to know what they know about world-building, and what they still need to learn. As someone who considers myself a perpetual student of life and writing, I look forward to sharing a little of what I have learned about building a world.
Maybe we’ll talk about how much fun it can be to destroy that world after you’ve built it, too. It’s not always necessary, but it’s one hell of a way to make a point or two.
We’ll talk about that, next week.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,