Getting to Know Them

So: non-goose entry this week I promise.

I am starting to get comments back from the Eager Volunteers on the first chunk of this summer’s project, and one of them sort of stuck out to me. “I can tell you’re still getting to know these characters.” This an example of why my Eager Volunteers are second to none, because that was 100% on the money. I’m not sure I had ever thought about it in exactly that way before, but still, on the money.

I’m still in the opening stages of this project, and so yes, I am still getting to know the characters. Even though there is still editting to be done on The King in Darkness before it comes out, I know all those characters very well, now. I know lots of things about them that will never make it into the story, or (I feel pretty sure) into the further tales I have planned for them. (Already teasing the sequels, ayup) I know their favorite foods, I know their private frustrations, I know how they would vote and I know what they would do in basically any situation now. Alarming as it may look written out, they’re very real people to me at this point, or at least fully-realized.

However, this is a whole new cast of characters and my Eager Volunteer is right, I don’t know them as well yet. I’m still trying to nail down their unique voices and keep them consistent. I have to stop and think about how each of them is likely to react in a situation I’m about to stick them in. Will they be steady as a rock, or flip out? Will they make jokes, or look for a place to hide? Whatever they feel, are they likely to express it or try to hide it? Until all this stuff gets nailed down, things tend to be a bit erratic, and I’m sure not very easy to read. The thing is that I tend to get them nailed down by writing a bunch of stuff and seeing what the characters do. Getting to know them, in other words.

I imagine some authors get these things all worked out before they start writing anything. My characters sort of introduce themselves to me as we go along; I start out basically knowing what the character is about and then the meat gets put on the bones as we take each other through different parts of the story. Having determined one thing about a character often guides me into the next thing. For example, if I’ve figured out that a character has a problem with authority figures, then when it comes time to write a scene where they witness a crime, and the police arrive, I already know that character is probably not going to dash right up to the cop and tell everything they know. They’re probably going to try to get the heck out of there. That scene almost writes itself, based on what I already know about the character. And, if they’re really that suspicious of police (we have decided), maybe they’re more likely to sympathise with the criminal than anything – to look for a reason why they did what they did, rather than condemning the action. That leads me to something maybe I didn’t know about the character before.

It’s probably a very sloppy way to write that necessitates a lot of going back and patching over things to fit later decisions about the character, and I’m sure it is probably frustrating for people reading the manuscript at this stage. I guess I’m always impatient to start writing when I have a story that is exciting me. Probably the Statler and Waldorf thing is a factor as well – I want to start writing before I start convincing myself that the idea is no good. Perhaps that’s a different kind of efficiency, even if I do rework and rewrite maybe more than I would if I did more pre-planning.

Sometimes, letting the characters introduce themselves like this causes me additional problems. The project I’m working on right now is an example of that. I already know that my main character is absolutely not going to want to do what is about to be asked of him. Even in these early stages, with the personality I’ve established for him, there is absolutely no chance that he would freely choose to do the things that he’s going to need to do for the rest of the book. Trying to find a way out of it seems much more likely.

But of course were he to do that, I don’t have a story, or at least not the story that I set out to write. I like to let my characters do their own thing to an extent, but not quite that much of an extent. So the problem (or, more accurately, one of the problems) that I’m trying to unknot right now is how to get him to do these things anyway. (I’m painfully aware that the Reluctant Protagonist is by no means a new thing, by the way, and I am approximately the 1 billionth author to think through this process.)

I don’t immediately have the answer, but I expect it will come. I may cheat by going ahead and writing some scenes with him in the thick of things and letting the character at that later stage explain to me how he got there. I am a big proponent of writing out of order, doing the stuff you feel ready to do and filling in the other bits later. A lot of times what seems like a tough part of the story to write gets greatly simplified by having the later portions already there, in my experience. (It does make things rather more frustrating for Eager Volunteers, though) However I fix it, at the moment, this is a bit of a tough part of the story.

So why not change his character? I mean, I could. Especially at this early stage, it would be relatively easy to tweak him a bit and change him into the sort of guy who would seize the challenge with both hands. It would certainly make my job easier and might work better, narratively.

However, again even at this very early stage, that seems like a kind of betrayal. I don’t know him real well yet, but this is a character with a personality and (for want of a better way of putting it) a way that he is, and changing that just to make my life easier doesn’t seem quite right. For one thing it is kind of admitting a little defeat as a writer – can’t write myself out of this corner – and it does also seem, to me, to be using brute force on a character who was kind enough to emerge out of my imagination and take part in a story I want to tell.

It’s probably very easy to get way too far up my own nether regions with this kind of thing, perhaps I have already. I honestly do know that these characters are not actual real people and that ultimately I am doing all the creating, even though the process may not feel that way all the time. (That may be one of those signs of mental illness that a thing went around on Twitter about a while back. Oh well, not to worry, right?) I’m not really sure what it says about me as a writer or my process of writing that I work through this stuff, but it was interesting to me to think about and so I thought I’d share it.

It all works out in the end, I think, and I do hope that the reality that these characters end up having to me comes across in the finished product. I will look forward to hearing what you all think about that (along with lots of other things) later this year.

Whoa that got long. Enough blog. Time to nail some stuff down.

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2 thoughts on “Getting to Know Them

  1. I love the beginning of a project. Though my absolute favorite is editing. I love revising and editing so much more than first drafts.

    By the way, I’m hosting a Blogging Coachella and this might be a great opportunity to spread the word about your blog and your writing ^_^ here you go:

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