Move Over and Let the Characters Drive

Dumbledore as portrayed by the late Richard Ha...

Dumbledore as portrayed by the late Richard Harris in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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Good-Bye, Little Decade

English: Traditional Devil's Food Birthday Cake

Birthday Cake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I write this, it is the last day I will ever be twenty-something, and while I would usually rather crawl under a rock than draw attention to my birthday, this one’s kind of a biggie. I could not wait to get out of my teens. I started college when I was seventeen, the youngest kid in my orientation class. I was always self-conscious about my age and went to great pains to stay inconspicuous. Every birthday, I thought, “Well, at least now I can say I’m in my twenties,” “Now maybe I’ll get some respect, since I’m past twenty-five,” and so on. But even now, I know that most of you are probably rolling your eyes, thinking I’m still a baby. I reach this age with mixed emotions because there were things I always assumed I would do before I hit thirty. But here I am, as unpublished and anonymous as ever, at least as far as the brick-and-mortar bookstores are concerned. But is that what life’s all about, anyway? I’ve thought a lot about what did happen in my twenties lately, and it’s been a pretty eventful ten years, even if I didn’t accomplish every single goal.


Two months after turning 20, I set my wedding date and started planning. I finished writing my first novel and started the long process of revising. I graduated with a BA (English/Philosophy) six months to the day before my wedding. I hardly noticed that I was finished with school, so immersed was in the editing and typesetting process of the second volume of Fiction Fix.


Thomas and I got married two months after I turned 21. I was actually the breadwinner the first five months we were married (scary thought because my salary was not spectacular). We lived in a tiny apartment and loved it, although we were excited (and naive) about becoming homeowners in the near future. 2004 was also what I think of as the Year of the Hurricane. There were four big storms, at least for Northeast Florida, and we spent many a night playing Scrabble by candlelight. A couple months before my next birthday, Thomas and I put a deposit down on our condo.


Not wanting to go month-to-month on our rent, Thomas and I moved in with his parents the weekend that I turned 22. Then our condo complex’s original builders went out of business, and it turned into a huge fiasco. We were assured our condo would be ready by September—November at the latest. We should have just walked away, but the $4000 we’d put down seemed like too much to lose. Oh well. One cool thing I did that year was to travel to New York with a group of choral friends, where we performed contemporary British composer John Rutter’s Requiem in a mass choir in Carnegie Hall. Even better than singing in Carnegie Hall was being directed by Rutter himself.


In May of 2006, Thomas and I became homeowners. We tried to put the extra six months of waiting behind us, figuring that in a couple years, we’d make all our money back, plus some, then get a house where we could raise a family. Ha. Anyhow, we moved in and adopted our kitty Willow shortly afterward. That fall, I had gum surgery, in preparation for getting braces. But before filling my mouth with metal, I found out I was pregnant.


It was mostly the year of the inflating, pregnant belly (and everything that goes with it). I cannot forget that this was also the year the last Harry Potter book came out. My parents, Thomas, and I went to Barnes and Noble for the midnight release. I read it aloud all the way home and much of the next day. (Thomas read ahead while I napped—hey, give me a break, I was pregnant.) Sad to think we’ll never go to a midnight Harry Potter book release again. Our first son Peter was born a few months later. The middle-of-the-night feedings, colic, and reflux were a pain, but his first few weeks are still magical to me. It’s a time I also associate with the movie The Departed, which we watched almost constantly for a month or two. When Peter was four months old, I got braces. At that point, the economy had already tanked, and my job at my family’s small business started to disappear. I transitioned to bookkeeper, which is much less than full-time. If I’d known, then, that we would have to survive on little more than Thomas’s salary, I probably wouldn’t have paid $6000+ to fix my bite, but it was money better spent than the $4000 we wasted on the condo’s deposit.


For several months, my family focused on my maternal grandfather and his failing health. I’m so glad that he lived long enough to know Peter, whom he adored. We honored his 89 years with a beautiful memorial service. Just a few months after Grandaddy died, my church ordained me as a deacon (in the Presbyterian church, we’re the lay people who provide pastoral care for the congregation and staff), and I know he would have been proud. On the writing front, I took a break from Fiction Fix to concentrate on being a mom. And on the mommy front, Peter was more and better than I ever could have imagined. I worried I would never lose the baby weight, but constant exercise and an appliance installed in the roof of my mouth that made it almost impossible to eat helped me lose an extra 20 pounds. Never fear, my orthodontist fit me with a new appliance, and my appetite was back by the time we took Peter on his first trip to Disney World.


On my 26th birthday, we went to Disney again, and I became extremely sick. When we got home, I was diagnosed with double ear infections and tonsillitis. But the fun was only starting; the antibiotic I took gave me hives that covered my entire body, including inside my mouth. Ugh. It was also the year when we realized that we had already lived in the condo three years and would continue to live there longer than expected. A lot longer. But we cringed at the idea of selling it and only breaking even or maybe even taking a couple-thousand dollar hit. I wish we had. But I had high hopes for making lots of money and paying off the balance because I finally landed a literary agent. That means publication, right? Wrong. It took the better part of two years to figure out that she didn’t care at all about selling my book to traditional publishers.


We went to Universal Islands of Adventure the weekend that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened. (Very bad idea, especially when you have a toddler in diapers.) Later that week, Peter was ring bearer in my cousin’s wedding. The next month, Peter was potty trained, his incentive two more trips to Disney World. In between the trips, I finally got my braces off. By that point, people were bugging us about having another kid, and with the braces off, I was ready to entertain the idea. Less than two weeks before I turned 28, we found out we were expecting our second child. I was also in a writing funk. I was looking for a good reason to ditch my useless agent, so I told her I was pregnant and didn’t want to write anymore. That’s not exactly true, but I had given up on publishing. I’d thought about starting a website, but I was too depressed by the whole not-getting-anywhere thing to do much about it. When I found out I was pregnant, I spent my meager savings for my website on baby stuff.


I spent most of the year tired. A few months before we welcomed baby Ian, Peter started three-year-old preschool at the same elementary school I attended. Thomas also went back to school to finish his bachelor’s. Due to laziness, tiredness, and being pregnant, Peter and I ate at Five Guys a lot, which was probably a big factor in gaining more weight with baby number two than baby number one. Ian was born two weeks before Christmas, and things weren’t quite as magical as when Peter was born. It took us a while to adjust to a very different little boy, but we love our baby just as much as his big brother.


Without a doubt, this has been the busiest year of my life thus far. I kind of got my writing mojo back and started this blog and discovered Smashwords. I started working with Fiction Fix again, after a four year hiatus. I also started getting up at 4:30 every day to exercise; it’s the only time I can do it now that Peter’s in school five days a week. I joined three different committees at my church and also started taking Sewanee’s Education for Ministry four-year course. We took the boys to Legoland to celebrate their birthdays, then Disney World at the beginning of this year. We put the condo on the market in January, figuring no one would ever want to buy it, and within 24 hours, we had an offer (although for much less than we originally paid). It was a whirlwind, finding a place to live and moving so quickly. The condo days are finally behind us; we actually have a house big enough for all of our stuff, although we weren’t brave enough to actually buy again. Since I’m not publishing bestsellers yet, I decided to start substitute teaching at Peter’s school, and I’m earning an income, while still not having to work full-time. I’m once again searching for an agent. Maybe I’ll actually get published one day. And if not by a traditional publisher, I’m determined to make my book the best it can be and publish it as an ebook, if nothing else. I always thought, Well, if I’m not published by the time I’m thirty, I’ll just save a chunk of money and self-publish. When you start writing a book at nineteen, you think that ten-plus years is more than sufficient for perfecting it and going through the entire publication process. Well, guess what, thirty is here, although a hardback copy of my book is not, it’s not the end of the world. Instead of giving myself a timeline, I have a list of prospective agents, and once they’re exhausted, I’ll go to plan B.

As for my thirties, my boys will be adolescents by the end of this decade. I’m sad, on the one hand, that I won’t have cuddly infants anymore, but I love watching them grow and learn. Maybe during this decade, we’ll plunge into the housing market again, maybe not. At least now we’re much better informed. And maybe that miracle of publication will happen for me. My dream, one that I have every time I volunteer in Peter’s school library, is for a child to come in one day and ask for my book. Wouldn’t that be cool? But if not, the best thing about being forced into some semblance of patience is that I’ve discovered how many other joys there are in life.

Now, bring it on, thirties!