Monday, February 8, 2010

What We Don't Know About . . .

. . . our characters!!!

What I didn't know about my characters? Oh, let me tell you what I didn't know about my characters for this project. Everything! Yes, everything. Okay, it really wasn't that bad. I, like my main character, just had these preconceived notions about the supporting players. I mean, I was creating these supporting players, so surely, surely, I knew absolutely everything about them.

Boy, was I wrong.

Like my main character, I suddenly realized that everything I thought I knew, was a tad bit off base. Okay, a bit more than a tad, just a bit, and I realized (well, I already knew this, but I needed a jumping off point for this post) that characters do not leap fully formed from the brilliance of my mind to the Word Document on my computer screen. The characters emerge partially sketched and it is up to me, the creator, to turn that partial sketch into a full work of art throughout the entire writing process, from first draft to final draft. Yes, the characters will continue to change and grow through the various draft forms.

Now, I'm only in rough draft phase right now. I'm typing along, minding my own business, and that of my characters, and suddenly the main character learns some things about his mother. He's shocked, surprised (no, she wasn't running an escort service on the side) and realizes that the image of his mother he had in his mind is more ficitonalized then he likes. In fact, his mother put it so much better (well, it was me, but . . .): You just can't handle it that I'm not the unaccepting bitch you imagined I'd be.

In a nutshell, the illusions are shattered and the MC realizes that, unfortunately, his mother is right.

Now, all through the manuscript, up to this pivotal point, I painted the mother in a fairly harsh light. I had no clue about her outside activities (who knew she worked for a covert operations team and - kidding, she didn't, but . . .) until one character spilled the beans. I hate when my characters keep secrets from me. It's really not fair. Then, suddenly, even I was seeing this character in a different light and - bingo, bango, the light bulb went off that: I really don't know my characters completely when I first begin the story. I, like the future readers of my novel, get to know this character slowly, over time, and not in one, fell, swoop!

Then, there is the character without a name. Yes, he is nameless. At this point, he's always referred to as the youngest son, your brother, your father's clone or some other reference. Why? Well, I'm not sure what purpose he serves and, until he serves a purpose, he shall remain nameless. I know the basics of this character, as sketched out by the other characters, and I see the potential for one, big, dramatic, scene that, if the book were a movie, would be an Oscar winning performance. Okay, maybe not, but a guy can dream!

The thing is, as much as we (I) sketch out our (my) characters beforehand in a nifty little Excel worksheet, there are times when these characters will do or become the unexpected. The mother of my main character did just that, and boy, did she surprise both the MC and me! Now, her motivations for what she did (think Mother Teresa but on a much, much smaller scale - okay, not really, but . . .) weren't golden in the beginning, were a bit selfish, but, over time, the reason changed. She changed.

So, as you're writing along, and one of your characters does the unexpected, don't go WTH, but rather, go hmmmmm and keep on writing. For, as much as we think we know about our characters because we created them, we really don't know that much about them until we actually finish our manuscripts of brilliance.


Tess said...

You mean mama was right? crap.

love this post. I always think I know my characters but end up with different people by the time the ms is finished/edited/reworked/etc

just like in our own real life..we need to allow people to flex and change.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Writing is so organic, isn't it? Characters suddenly tell you 'you don't know me at all!' - and that's where you know they're going to run and run. I'm off to tweet :-)

Jon Paul said...

Groovy post.

It's Churchill's old saying: "If you find yourself walking through hell, keep walking." I think until characters start telling the writer things he didn't know before, he has to keep turning over stones.

Ann Elle Altman said...

Yesterday, my MC did something shock and well, I was shocked! I shouldn't be and think some of my readers will wonder about her to but I'm starting to understand how she thinks...

Scott said...

Tess - yes, much to my dismay, mama was right! LOL! I'm right there with you about thinking I know my characters and then comes the 'whoa, I can't believe he/she just did that'.

dirtywhitecandy - yes, writing is organic, and I think the characters suddenly dictating their actions is half the fun of writing. The generous nature of the mother really suprised me, especially after the one I had written her up to that point.

Jon Paul - I agree completely, and love the way you phrased it.

Ann Elle - I think the understanding comes, normally, after we hit the second/third draft phase of a project.

Jody Hedlund said...

I had a little bit of that Hmm moment this morning. I realized my heroine was not quite turning out the way I'd planned in all my pre-writing worksheets. So I had to make the decision whether to go back and add in what I was missing OR whether to keep going and see how she develops. And I think for now I'm going with option two. It's kinda fun to see where it leads!

Scott said...

Jody - I prefer option two. The 'realization' moment for me, in this rough draft phase, is really the defining moment of the manuscript, the underlying theme really. I mean, what happens when we realize our impressions of people aren't that accurate? This character must totally reexamine his perceptions of people, and of himself for having these perceptions. It's going to be a roller coaster ride of heavy duty proportions! Woo-hoo!

Elana Johnson said...

I think you hit it when you said to go with it and keep writing. I end up rewriting my novels anyway, and I don't really know my characters until the end of the first draft. So I can go back and fix anything that needs to be fixed on the second (and tenth) pass.

Anonymous said...

Starting out I had all these preconceived notions that I would be the one calling the shots in my story. Then, while hacking away at my MS, wild things kept happening that weren't in the plans. Turns out I'm just the one who jots down what these characters do!

Scott said...

Elana - I think if we attempt to overanalyze why a character is suddenly doing something unexpected, we interrupt the flow of writing and, perhaps, kill the uniqueness of the character. Then again, perhaps not. : )

mylit - I'm right there with you. I'll never forget the time a very minor secondary character suddenly took off in a revision of one manuscript. Suddenly, she became the MC. She just wasn't satisfied with her secondary, very minor, status. : )

Davin Malasarn said...

These are some of my favorite parts of writing--when a character does something that feels so natural and yet I had no idea that it was coming!

Anonymous said...

I agree 100%!

The characters drive the story.

(That's why outlines are so hard for me; the characters can't drive if they've yet to be created.)


from the desk of a writer

Scott said...

Davin - mine too. I just love when the characters lead met to unexpected places.

Corra - yep, the characters drive the story. As for outlines (not my favorite thing to do), I did one for this project, but really only sketched out certain events, leaving room for more events spur of the moment. I even had two unexpected characters make appearances, solely to drive the story forward, but still not part of my original plan.


Robyn Campbell said...

I have felt this way so many times before. Scott, even in my picture books.

I wish they did leap fully formed from the first draft phase. How cool would that be? I do like to sketch them out, but excel makes me shake uncontrollably. I'm not sure as to how to use it to my advantage.

I'm glad to hear the new one is moving along. And glad the main character is showing you some things. *grin*