Friday, November 21, 2008

Unruly Characters

People don't generally believe me when I tell them that my characters have minds of their own. I mean, okay, I know that TECHNICALLY they did come out of my head. I'm not completely nutty. But getting to know a character, particularly just as you're beginning a story, can be an interesting experience. Especially if they don't want to be what you want them to be. Think this is impossible? Oh no. No it is not. And a character can make you utterly miserable until you get him or her right.

An example? In my book Dark Highland Fire, my heroine, Rowan, starts out as a stripper at a sleazy joint in Reno. She and I had no issues about also her also being an otherworldly, blood-drinking demigoddess: apparently, that worked for everyone. But the stripper thing, well...honestly, I was not at all sure about it. I tried to make her a more vulnerable refugee without a job. I tried to compromise and make her a bartender at the sleazy strip joint. I tried to work it so she didn't actually take her clothes off in front of a bunch of sweaty men. And in each of those cases, Rowan crossed her arms over her chest, glared at me, and said, "No, I'm a stripper. Deal with it!" She was right, of course...that opening scene with her doing her thing at the Pretty Kitty is probably the best opener I've written. And it ended up revealing a lot about her unconventional attitudes, about what bothered her and what didn't, and about how different her people were from your average human. It worked. So Rowan got to be a stripper. And I got to progress beyond chapter one and keep my sanity.

So I know what you're thinking: yeah, okay, you had an imaginary character glaring at you inside your head telling you what to do. Have you considered medication? Well, no, because that's not really exactly how it is either. It's just an easier way for me to visualize the mental roadblocks I run up against when I'm not getting a character right. Another example (and why this is on my mind today) is the new heroine I'm writing. I was all set to have her be this beautiful tough girl, brash and intimidating on the outside but wounded on the inside. I wrote most of a chapter with her that way, in fact. But as the scene went on, I knew something was wrong. I wasn't connecting with her. Her actions and words felt forced and wooden. Even my hero, who was reluctantly on his way to rescue her, wasn't acting right! There was no fun in the discovery of my heroine, no joy. And there always is for me...even though, later on, there will be days when I have to drag myself kicking and screaming to the computer to work (work, after all, being work and therefore easier at times than others), meeting my characters is always a pleasure. So I thought about it. I gave in to a different vision of her that had been simmering on the back burner of my brain for a few days (insisting, patiently and unflaggingly, "No, do THIS.") I was convinced, of course, that this new version wouldn't work, but maybe trying it and having it fail would just reinforce what I had already done. It happens. But it didn't this time. The character knew what she needed to be. She has a much different job than I'd tried to give her. And she doesn't even live where I thought she did! It's weird, and I don't get quite how it works, but that's the way it is.

One of my very favorite writers, Stephen King, describes writing a story as finding a fossil, buried in the ground, with just enough showing that you notice it. It's already there. The job of the writer is to chip and chisel away at the rock surrounding it and try to get the story out as intact as possible. This, thinking of all stories as found things, and not necessarily entirely in a writer's control, tells me he'd understand my unruly character problems:-) I may actually be a little nutty (ssh, don't tell anyone), but with company like that, you won't hear me complaining!
Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!



  1. Hi Kendra,
    I finished Dark Highland Fire last night. Great job! Rowan and Gabriel were a fun couple and I loved the opening scene at the Pretty Kitty.

    I think you've heard me say that I tried to make Ryan in Line of Scrimmage into a baseball player, because that's my sport. I actually had full-blown arguments with him as I tried to remake what was clearly an NFL quarterback into my idea of the star shortstop. Wasn't happening. Funny what you say about the crossed arms and willful disposition. That was Ryan! Yes, you do feel half nutty (or maybe three quarters nutty) but that's just how it goes. And no, you can't explain how this works to "civilians." They'd probably try to have you locked up!

    Good luck with the WIP!

  2. Loved the quote from Stephen King. It perfectly describes what the process feels like to me.

    Do-Lord the hero of SEALed With a Promise absolutely demanded a story from me that I shrank from telling. And it WAS his way or the highway.

    I've learned when a character does this, the real resistence is in me. I don't want to face the emotions. I don't want to live with the pain this character is going to feel because of his decisions.

    However, resistence is futile. If I try to write it my way, I wind up with boring, emotionally flat stuff that has to be trashed.

    Someone asked the other day, how do you create your characters. I answered, "This is where I admit I'm nuts. A character starts talking in my head..."

    BTW I already have the problem with the WIP. Davy has sustained traumatic brain injury--that was not my plan! He was supposed to fine--miraculoulsy fine--after the RPG exploded near him.

    Great post. An endlessly fascinating subject.

  3. Hooray! I am not alone!

    Marie, I was actually thinking of your baseball/football problem while I was writing this, like, "Well, I definitely know this happened to Marie!" I'm so glad you enjoyed DHF...I had a ridiculous amount of fun with those two. I have mostly given up trying to explain how I come up with my characters. And you know, before I really started doing it, the concept of having to wrestle with imaginary people over what they want sounded weird to me too!

    Writers are all a little nutty, and that is why I love them. They are my people;-)

    MM, the bit is actually from Stephen King's book "On Writing". I don't really read a lot of craft stuff (bad me), but that book is one I read over and over again. I highly recommend it. I know just what you mean about the writer being the problem, not the character. They ahve a way of forcing us into places where we might not be very comfortable, but like I said, they seem to know what they need. How, I have no idea! LOL on your desired miracle with Davy...I would SO have tried to do it the same way!

  4. On Writing is on my writing craft keeper-shelf. (In my case, hope springs eternal that I will find a book that tells me how to do this!)
    I haven't reread King's book in a long time though. Clearly, I should.

  5. Kendra~

    I'm the same way - for me, if the book isn't working, I know something is wrong with the character. When I figure out what it is, all of a sudden I'm unstuck.

    As for my characters taking over and totally doing away with my plans, I like to think of it as my way of getting around the dreaded synopsis. if I blame it on the character, it's not my fault. When this happens, it's always turns out better than the original so no one is disappointed - not yet anyway. We'll see what happens with the next book.

    Robin :)

  6. LOL, Robin...I HATE synopses! Blaming any deviations (and mine are always legion) on the characters is a most excellent idea. How am I supposed to know every twist and turn of my story before they happen?? Takes all the fun out of it.

  7. My characters always tell me what to do, Kendra. I wonder what I'm doing except the typing for them. :}


  8. Kendra--

    Rowan is one of the most creative characters I've ever read! She's a great heroine (a demi-goddess and future leader of her people, hello!), and feisty and.... a stripper?!?!?! That opening chapter was awesome :)

    Have a great weekend,

  9. Interesting post, Kendra. I have trouble with my characters, too, but what I start out with doesn't always get trashed as the character develops, which is why sometimes characters start out being one person and end by being another one entirely! Sometimes I'll go back and alter the beginning, but other times I leave it. After all, a book is about how people change and are changed by contact with new people and situations. They sort of grow and morph into a different person.
    Obviously, though, I need to get SK's book, too!

  10. Very insightful, Kendra. And nobody here is going to think you need medication. Characters have minds of their own, sometimes so much so that you can forget this is a person you invented rather than an individual walking around in the world. Remember the Will Farrell movie "Stranger than Fiction"? That's food for thought for any writer. You've just got to listen to the little boogers.

  11. Linda, I know exactly what you mean! And they are not always happy with the quality of my work, alas:-)

    Danielle, thanks for the compliment!! I think that Rowan is always going to be in a category of her own for me, which is probably as it should be. She is, after all, a demigoddess.

    Cheryl, I envy you the non-trashing of beginnings. If my laptop had ears, they would be ringing a lot of the time! And yes, SK's book is on my keeper shelf. He has such an intimate way of writing, as though he's speaking just to you...and the man is a treasure trove of knowledge. Plus, his books kick butt.

    LOL, Christina...they are little boogers, aren't they? You wonder sometimes if one of them will just show up in your office. Since all of mine are supernaturally powered, if they were unhappy with their treatment, I would probably be in BIG trouble.