About a five years ago, I visited with a book club in New Castle, Delaware. It was a fun afternoon of talking about the two books I had out at the time and sharing ideas.
One of the things we discussed was whether characters become real people to me. The answer to that is a simple yes.
Most authors will tell you that after working with a character for a while, the fictional person will take on a life of her own. It’s an awesome way of working because we get to take our “invisible friends” out and play with them all the time. However, the “invisible friend” thing comes with interesting side effects.
Let’s say an author is pursuing a plot that runs contrary to the character’s “self.” Most likely the writer will meet with resistance of some sort. The closest I can come to describing the phenomenon is to say that it resembles trying to get a piece of software to do something it is not designed to do. You keep getting a loud beep or a “it does not compute” message. For me, this often feels as if I am trying to push the character only to discover that the character doesn’t like it and has responded by refusing to budge.
This happened to me after I had finished Walk by Faith and was preparing to start the next book, A Time to Heal. My plan had been to move everyone back to New Jersey. I had sketched out a plot, was all set to go, and – BAM! Maggie and Eli dug in their heels. It seemed that no matter what I tried, nothing worked. I kept getting the impression no one wanted to return to Blaineton. Clearly, they were not ready to be uprooted.
The crux of the problem, as I now understand it, lay in how I had concluded Walk by Faith. As one of the participants at the Delaware book club noted, I had tied things up too neatly at the end of the book. It was awesome to hear that, because I had that concern, too. The helpful criticism served as confirmation that my “spidey senses” were on the money. Both the participant and my characters knew that, having gone through the trauma of the Battle of Gettysburg, some significant healing had to occur before everyone could move on, both literally and emotionally.
It was as if Maggie, Eli, and all the other members of the boarding house kept shouting, “We’ve got issues!” But I couldn’t or wouldn’t hear them. So, I rewrote the conclusion to the book and cut a good chunk of material out.
There also are times when I have no idea where the story is going. My writing process is that I do some general plot work but am open to changes as I write. Using this process can lead to surprises.
When I was working on Seeing the Elephant, which is perhaps my longest book and is made up of a series of plots, I had no idea where the center of the story was. The good news is that when you have all those “invisible friends,” interesting stuff can happen. In this case, I sat down, took a deep breath, and asked myself where the story’s center was. Suddenly, I had an image of Eli grabbing my shoulders, giving me a little shake, and shouting, “It’s my story, damn it,” in my face.
Of course, Eli was right. It was and is his story. I jokingly like to say that he hijacked that novel, but deep inside, I know Seeing the Elephant had always been his story.
You might be wondering why an author doesn’t know this stuff consciously or how an author can’t see where a story should go.
For me, the answer seems to be that there are times when I get too focused on the writing and forget that I have created people who, despite their being fictional, have real feelings, attitudes, and needs. Sometimes it takes me a while to hear what Maggie and family are saying.
Recently, I’ve been working on The Great Central Fair, a Saint Maggie short story that decided it was going to develop as I was trying to write The Good Community. It took a while, but eventually I realized I was trying to stuff two major plot lines into one book. So, I removed the material related to the Great Central Fair and decided to use it as a short story.
Once I did that and started focusing on the short story, two of the characters surprised me further with a little plot twist. I probably saw that coming somewhere in my subconscious, but it is just another example of the creative process and the way my “invisible friends” claim their story.
I have to say that all these experiences have taught me to trust my gut and listen to my characters. It has become the way I write now. And why not listen to my invisible friends? After all, I am telling their story and I owe it to them to get it right.
And, no, I’m not crazy.
Back at ya on Monday, friends!