Breathe life into your characters by making them conflicted, strange, endearing.
Last week I wrote about letting go and allowing your characters to take the wheel, and I’d like to expand on that this week.
You see, I understand the problem with giving control to someone else. It’s why my dad and husband both hate being in the passenger seat: when you’re not the one driving, there’s a whole trust and safety issue.
Now, the driving analogy can only go so far (and I don’t like driving, anyway). After all, while it would be foolish to let a thirteen-year-old take the wheel, your story’s thirteen-year-old character could do wondrous and unimaginable things if you let him loose on the page.
But characters of all ages and types – even the ones that may, at first glance, seem quite ordinary, even boring, have the chance of surprising us, if only we let them. Or for stories that aren’t as character-driven, maybe it’s the story itself that takes over and twists in unexpected ways.
But it’s scary to let go, I’ll be the first to admit.
Like so many other good students of composition and the tried-and-true formula college paper, I swallowed all that stuff about a beginning, middle, and end. I was really good at it, too. I often joke that I majored in writing papers, but it’s sadly true. I could write and edit like nobody’s business, and I was especially good at figuring out what my professors wanted to read and tailoring my papers to whatever persuasion was necessary to get me an A. Selling out? I suppose so. But it got me out quickly and unscathed, so I could get down to the serious work that I had little time for in college: writing fiction.
The problem is that writing an A+ college paper does not a good fiction author make. I think that’s why, for the longest time, I figured I would have to settle with being an editor. That I can do. I can tell writers all day long what they need to do to fix their stories because it’s easier to critique a story when you’re not in the midst of creating it. And although I’ve edited a bunch of crap, sometimes I get a real gem that makes me have hope all over again. And I sometimes wonder: what makes this author different than all the others? I mean, aside from the obvious being a good story-teller part.
I think that, in large part, it goes back to what Stephen King says in On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, and (I’m majorly paraphrasing here) it’s that following an outline, plotting an entire novel to the point that it can no longer breathe on its own, is the best way to create a stiff, author-driven piece of fiction. The point is that the author needs to get out of the way, and that simply can’t happen without taking risks. Like letting the story go where it will. Like sometimes giving your audience an unexpected ending.
Now, before I go any further, let me say that creating any kind of ending simply for the sake of making a statement is the most blatant form of author-interference, and it drives me nuts. Anyone remember when Ian Malcolm dies in Jurassic Park: A Novel, only to be resurrected in The Lost World: A Novel? Well, of course you don’t, if you’ve only seen the movies. That’s because he doesn’t die in the first movie. I can only assume that someone approached Michael Crichton and said, “Hey, we need a sequel, but we kind of need Ian Malcolm to be the main character.” Whoops. He’s dead. So he’s really not dead after all – what a miracle – and we can all forget those tears we shed when we read the first book. Right. (Notice how there’s no third book, but they went ahead with a third movie, anyway?)
I love Michael Crichton, and I actually like the first movie, too, although the whole “based on the novel” part is a very loose interpretation. The point is that risk-taking on his part wasn’t quite what Hollywood wanted. Maybe other authors are afraid of this, so they go ahead and remove the risk – write the ending that they think people will want instead of how the story is supposed to end. Other authors go the opposite direction and just start killing people willy-nilly for effect, making their readers mad for no reason.
But what would happen if we just let the stories be themselves?
It’s harder than you think, of course. Sometimes, a Hollywood director will come along and screw everything up. Or after you die, another author will write the sequel that they feel answers the questions you intentionally left. (I touched on this in a post late in 2012.)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Stephenie Meyers’s The Twilight Saga Collection. There are all kinds of twists and surprises, not to mention plenty of tension. But – spoiler alert – I’ve always felt a tiny bit cheated by the ending. I never did see the last movie because I was busy juggling a newborn baby and a preschooler at the time, but the previews told me enough: the big conflict that never really happens but just kind of fizzles out (at least in the book) had to be jazzed up a little for the movie. I mean, I’m glad that none of the good guys have to die, but at the same time, knowing how bad the bad guys are, it doesn’t quite seem realistic. (Okay, okay, what is realistic in a story full of vampires and werewolves? But I’m talking about suspending my disbelief to unbelievable proportions, here.) To me, it felt like Meyers actually interfered to keep something from hurting her characters, like she just missed something – maybe something monumental – at the end. I’m not saying to kill Edward or Jacob – or anyone. I’m just saying it’s a little too neat.
I faced the same thing with one of my own stories. I originally published “Stranded” when I was in college, and even back then, I fought with myself over the ending. The title being what it is, I could only do so much, unless I wanted to change that (and I didn’t). But one day, after a reader told me that she’d gotten to the end and wondered where the rest of it was, I considered following up with a sequel. Do people write sequels to short stories? Well, it’s a moot point because I haven’t done it and don’t think I ever will. That’s not to say I haven’t considered it, though. I have – a lot. I’ve read my story many times, trying to figure out what could possibly come next. But even though I created it, I could no more direct the next scene than I’ll be able to tell my children what they’re going to do for their livings when they’re adults.
Then in 2012, I decided to republish it. After all, the original publication was out of print, and I thought I could make a few tweaks to the text, which I did. I think the piece as a whole is improved, but… the ending remains the same. I still couldn’t change it. Why? Because I want to make readers unhappy? No. Because I want them to beg me to write more? No, and I won’t, even if they ask. Because the meat of the story is the same as it was in 2003 when I penned the first draft – that’s why. It just needed a little hair cut, some trimming of the fat. And it might have grown an inch or two since then. But it’s essentially the same story, and I’m glad that I let it be itself.
I took a risk once, and I am satisfied with the outcome. I only hope I can stick to my guns and keep taking those risks. After all, I owe it to the stories.
I love reading books that are so good that you just have to talk to someone else about them. My husband and I have read a few of those lately. After finishing the latest trilogy, Thomas Googled the author to see if there were any interviews about the series’ ending. Sure enough, he found one in which she talked about how her characters continually surprised her.
“It’s just like so many authors say,” he told me, looking somewhat bemused.
“It’s true,” I confirmed.
As crazy as it sounds, we authors don’t have the total control over our characters that we wished we did. Yet some authors insist on absolutely smothering the life out of their characters to make them bend to their wills. You’ll know these characters when you meet them because they’re inconsistent, like someone is forcing them to do things they weren’t meant to do.
Since I think it’s safe to talk about the Harry Potter books without fear of spoiling the ending (and if you haven’t read them, shame on you), I’d like to bring up something author J.K. Rowling said back in the days when all the fans were itching for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7). Thomas and I checked her website on a daily basis, theorized with friends, skimmed the news for any possible updates, and any time J.K. Rowling came out with something – anything – new, we were beside ourselves with glee. And no, I am not exaggerating (although Thomas can suppress his glee a lot more than I can).
And one day, she said that she was having a particularly hard time with Dumbledore. Well, first of all, that made everyone scratch their heads because he died at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6) – or did he?
But more amusing to me, aside from this nugget, was the image of Jo Rowling fighting her characters to straighten up and fly right. Characters will be difficult, and although non-writers may think we authors crazy or schizophrenic or overly imaginative to say so, there is an element involved that defies explanation.
There are some people who feel compelled to write in order to create characters that fulfill unrequited wishes. These characters are forced into ill-fitting molds. The beautiful girl that said no to a date with the nerdy guy suddenly falls in love with him. The bully at school finally get his come-uppance. The evil boss sees the error of her ways and starts treating her employees like human beings. These characters feel flat. They don’t do much – except what the author designed them to do.
What is truly beautiful, however, is when these characters are allowed to take control of their existences, teaching the author a thing or two while living their stories. Harry was an absolute teenage brat in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix. Sirius Black died laughing, in the thick of battle. Dumbledore gave his life, leaving a mess and a number of unanswered questions. Dobby – well, I don’t even want to mention him because I know it will start my mom crying. But the point is that J.K. Rowling could have made Harry a sweet fifteen-year-old, leaving everyone wondering if she remembered at all what teenagers are like. She could have let all of her characters live, eliminating the very important sacrifices that they made. Everyone would have hugged and been happy, and the story would have stalled and rung false. It would have cheapened their dear, fictional lives.
So next time you read a book and can’t believe that the author did something that you feel is the deepest betrayal, consider how you would feel if the author had taken the easy way out instead. I don’t know about you, but I don’t read in order to feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I read to suspend disbelief for a time, to form a relationship with characters, to have an absolutely amazing experience – that may hurt at times but will also deliver a great deal of truth in a fictional package. The stories that I love the most are the ones that leave me conflicted, that keep me up at night, that sometimes break my heart. Maybe things didn’t turn out the way they could have, but often, they turn out exactly as they should have.