Writing Wednesdays: Characters Are People Too

It’s something of a chestnut among writers: someone mentions that their characters have done something of their own accord, entirely against the writer’s will, and all the other writers in the room smile and laugh knowingly, eyes twinkling in amused sympathy. Oh, to be sure, there are writers who do not focus on characterization, and perhaps they don’t face quite the same problem, but most of us know all too well that you can create all the people you like and not one of them will do precisely what you expect.

Since this is the first post discussing my novel, I should go a bit into its origins. When I started writing Fall, the characters (and the basic relationships between them) were all I had. I had recently read Twilight and its sequels, thanks to my friend Katie (who knew full well what she was getting me into, but somehow our friendship has survived both that blatant trolling attempt and the terrible crushing sadness I experienced after she got me to read His Dark Materials), and after finishing the books, I was struck by two main thoughts. First, I was absolutely certain that I could write something better. Twilight is a tremendous ego boost to most writers for that reason. It’s also a cautionary tale: you can come up with a couple interesting characters and one or two intriguing notions, but you’ve got to keep going and not just pad that wheat out with a whole bunch of chaff.

But my rants on Twilight can wait. Returning to the point, my second thought was this: …where the hell are all the gay people?

It is, perhaps, not terribly surprising that a Mormon Brigham Young University graduate wrote a young adult romance novel with absolutely no hint of alternate sexuality or gender identities whatsoever. Given the state of our society, in fact, it is not terribly surprising that there is a general dearth of GLBT characters (particularly main characters) in the supernatural romance genre. Happily, there are novels that include such characters (I admit that I have not yet had the opportunity to read too many modern fantasy novels with openly GLBT protagonists, let alone supernatural romance, but Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales and Seanan McGuire’s October Daye novels both feature some great gay or bi characters), but there’s a lot of work to be done, and I want to be one of the people doing that work. I want to write stories that speak to a wider range of readers, and I want to offer even the so-called mainstream perspectives they don’t often get to see.

Thus, Fall was born. In the beginning, I had only a basic sketch: inspired by the aforementioned Holly Black and Seanan McGuire, as well as my interest in Irish folklore and mythology and various other fondly remembered fairy tales of my youth and adolescence, I was going to write a queer supernatural romance revolving around modern fairies living in America. I didn’t want to tell another ‘hapless human falls in love with mysterious supernatural paramour’ story, so I decided my main character, Bree, would be the younger daughter of the Winter Queen, already ensconced in fairy society but eager to escape the machinations of the court and find something more meaningful. Her love interest, Maddie, would be a mysterious new arrival in town who appeared to pose a significant threat to the society of the fae, and Bree would have to find a way to protect her from trigger-happy knights, paranoid nobles, and the schemes of the Winter Queen and heir apparent while she figured out what Maddie’s deal was and what they were to one another.

I wrote out a chapter or two of this novel, and soon hit upon a problem: pure supernatural romance tends to be really boring. I actually can’t think of a single romance novel that deals exclusively with romance without incorporating other elements: Pride and Prejudice deals chiefly with Elizabeth Bennet’s relationship with Mr. Darcy, and with the various romantic trials of their friends and family, but it also shows how Elizabeth cares for and protects her family in so many ways before finally finding and accepting love herself, and how Elizabeth’s stubbornness both helps and hinders her. I already had something of a broader plot brewing in the form of Maddie’s mysterious past, but I soon realized that wasn’t enough. More importantly, it wasn’t the story I wanted to write. I really wanted to explore the society of the fae, their origins and history, their reasons for coming to America and the impact that had. I wanted to tell a story of change and growth, not just in Bree’s life, but in fae society at large.

So the novel went back to the drawing board. I did some work on another project in the meantime, but I also spent a lot of time doing research and figuring out the story I wanted to tell. Which brings me back to my point about characters: because Bree and Maddie didn’t just go quietly into the closet at the back of my mind and wait patiently for me to write their story. Something happened while I was building the foundation of their world. By the time I was ready to start writing Fall again, the two of them were connected in ways that surprised even me, and they were ready to run at each other full tilt. I wrote Chapter 1 in a rush, introduced the pair of them, and before I knew it, they were flirting madly, despite Bree’s uncertainty about her own sexuality and despite my own efforts to rein them in.

And it worked. I could have forced them apart, made their conversation more casual, but…it worked far too well on the page. And their sudden, profound feelings for one another explained some of Bree’s actions in later chapters, most especially her willingness to risk her strained relationships with her family, her social standing, and possibly her very life in order to protect someone she barely knew. I realized, suddenly, that some kind of destiny was in play here: that they may not have been fated for one another (though, of course, as the writer, I fully intended to pull them together), but the potential of their relationship was so powerful that it would change everything around them. Once I understood that Bree was dealing not just with a new and unexpected relationship but with the stirrings of destiny, I began to understand how I should flesh out her character. As Bree’s story became more complex, so, of course, did Maddie’s, and soon the two of them were complementing each other nicely.

Bree’s sister, Kira, also went through some unexpected changes. I had initially thought of her as a sort of femme fatale, seducing and using and discarding hapless mortals without a thought. Then I gave a good deal of thought to making her the outright villain of the piece. I briefly considered making her outright emotionally abusive toward Bree. She was immature, power-hungry, grasping and cruel. But when my writing group rightly pointed out that she was far, far older than Bree, and her immaturity was surprising – that, in fact, she might see herself as a surrogate mother to Bree – Kira truly clicked in my head, and soon she, too, was transforming into something I never expected. As written now, she is emotionally manipulative, but not abusive. Her cruelty has shifted to a sort of cluelessness; in many ways, her mentality is simply alien, and she truly doesn’t understand why her actions sometimes upset Bree or why she can’t simply enchant mortals as she will. As I saw Kira less as Bree’s enemy and more as a big sister and surrogate mother trying her best to protect Bree and mold her into someone who can survive and thrive in fae society, the whole shape of the plot began to change. I won’t say whether or not Kira is still the villain. But I will say that her reasons for doing the things she does are now much more complex.

These are just a few examples of the impact your characters can have on your story. In the case of Fall, their evolving personalities and their sometimes surprising choices changed the story drastically. I am hardly the first writer to experience this: certainly a few of the other members of my writing group have seen their stories shift unexpectedly, and I have fond memories of an essay written by Jane Yolen in which she remarked upon whole groups of characters turning up uninvited and insisting upon a place in your story. It doesn’t matter whether or not you meant to write about elves (the example from Yolen’s essay, if I remember correctly) or kings or dragons or aliens…sometimes they just show up, and refuse to leave you alone until you’ve worked out what they’re doing there.

As a writer, you should embrace these moments. To be sure, you cannot spill everything you’ve thought of onto the page. If you try to shove every notion you may have into your book, up to and including dragons, kings, elves, aliens, cloned Tyrannosaurus Rexes (Tyrannosauri Rex?), and possessed fully-automated kitchen sinks, you will end up with a mess. You must know when to begin paring things down and, as the saying goes, killing your darlings. But your characters are people too. They are born of your experience, your personality, sometimes even parts of your history, but they are in a sense your children: once you create them, they have minds and wills of their own. Sometimes they’ll surprise you, and sometimes those surprises will be the most amazing things you’ve ever seen. Listen to what they’re telling you. Embrace their individuality. Your writing will be better for it.

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3 thoughts on “Writing Wednesdays: Characters Are People Too

  1. While I’ve heard people say ‘Oh my characters just insisted!’ and rolled my eyes at it, I also totally *get it*. I remember clearly the first time that happened to me while I was writing something, a character took her own path without my expecting anything of the sort, but it was so clearly the *right* path for her at that time. It felt freaking awesome!

    • It does sound kind of dorky at first…until you actually experienced it, and then you’re like HELL YES. That said, as with children, there’s certainly a point at which you have to learn to say no. “My characters just insisted” is no excuse for a shitty story, and I know that I still roll my eyes at anyone who tries to explain their mistakes that way. Sorry: if you make that mistake, that’s on you. If your characters want to do something or say something that would totally break everything, and you can’t figure out how to build a compelling story out of the wreckage of that decision, just remember that you have the power to say no. Be polite but firm and get your story back on track.

      It’s a balancing act. Like parenting, management, directing…honestly just about any kind of social management, really. Characters are people, too…but fictional or otherwise, people need to be led.

  2. Pingback: Writing Wednesdays: All The Small Things | Diary of a Random Fangirl

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