Tuesday, June 09, 2009

(Trying to) Let your characters dictate the action.

Vicki’s blog entry yesterday was something I’m also dealing with at the moment, even though I’ve not yet started to write my next novel. I am in the middle of writing up a plot summary for it, though, at the request of my agent. (This is what I call a “Yuck Project”. These things always have far too much of the feel of “homework” for my liking. Still, like homework, it has to be done.)

Like Vicki, I’ve always felt that the most successful novels are those where the author sets up the characters and their world, and then let’s them go at it. How many times have you been thoroughly engrossed in a story when all of a sudden one of the characters does something so, um, uncharacteristic that you just fall right out of the book? I’ll bet, more often than not, this is a place where the author “imposed his will” on the plot in order to make it go in the direction needed. I know, because I’ve been guilty of this offense. And to my experience, it never really works.

What does one do to counteract this? My solution is to give my characters as much of a full life as I can — well outside the scope of my story line. Sometimes I write it out, sometimes I just store it away in my head. I think it’s a given that our early experiences (certainly before age twenty) have the strongest influence in how we live and react to things we come across in our “later lives”.

So I’m spending time with each of my projected main characters, giving them as detailed childhoods as I think they’ll need. One is going to be a lawyer. He’s intelligent, very passionate but rigid in his beliefs, dogmatic, more than a little stiff but also a hopeless romantic. What happened in his, say, sixteenth year that caused him to turn away from his passionate, emotional side, and become maybe too analytical and rigid in how he deals with certain situations?

All the while, I’m aware of the things he’ll be required to do in the course of the novel’s plot, and hopefully, those plot points that can become game breakers or places where the author’s omnipotent hand forces characters to do “wrong” things (as Vicki wrote about) won’t be sticking points at all, but places that ring very true for the reader. And make the characters seem more real to the reader.

Will all those imagined youthful experiences wind up in the novel? Heavens no! One or two might turn up, but by knowing they happened, I will be writing with a much stronger, more certain hand.

At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work...


A quick sidebar: This past weekend at Bloody Words in Ottawa, I was on a panel called "Ink versus the electron" that examined whether books will remain ascendant or electronic readers will take over. Melanie Fogel sent the panelists the following link which I think everyone will find very amusing: http://smellofbooks.com/.


Vicki Delany said...

Nice label.

Rick Blechta said...

Well, I've been told that by a lot of people...