When Characters Surprise Me, I Am Happy

I’ve found another way we can divide people into two groups. Well, writers, anyway. The first is, writers whose characters behave only in ways previously described in an outline the author has written. The second (mine) is writers whose characters do the equivalent of jumping out of closets, surprising and scaring them, and rarely doing what their author had planned for them.

Nine years ago, I was at a Tim Powers Guest of Honor speech at Loscon. Wonderful speech. He spoke of his writing process, which involved spending a year or so writing a whole bunch o’ stuff down on 3 x 5 cards and arranging and rearranging them until he had a detailed roadmap/outline to work from. Only then did he begin to write. He had to do this, he said, he had to know what each character was going to do, because he hated having to throw drafts away.

At question time, I raised my hand and asked, “Don’t your characters ever behave in ways you hadn’t planned?”

He appeared somewhat shocked. No, he said. What, I asked, if they just got up and started walking around, going places you didn’t expect them to?

“I wouldn’t let them,” he replied.

Huh. I know he was telling the truth, but I’m baffled. My characters don’t even begin to come alive until I begin to write. 3 x 5, even 4 x6, cards won’t do. I need 8-1/2 x 11. Even then, by the end of the first draft, only one or two of the main characters will be at all interesting. I require subsequent drafts to fill in the holes of the other characters, sometimes to take them in a different direction entirely. This happens. I am currently working on my almost-readable draft of a novel, trying to turn it into a rough-but-readable draft, and just became aware that the murderer isn’t who I thought it was. Another character revealed him/herself in the clearest and most unmistakable way. I must go with that gut feeling. I can’t help feel this is a good thing, and not an inconvenience at all, because if I can surprise myself with my tale, perhaps I can surprise my reader as well.

The thing about Tim Powers: his work reads as anything but pat and predictable. His work is smooth, original, darkly humorous, and quirky, as if it had sprung spontaneously and fully-realized from his brain. The year or so of index cards strewn all over the place has been crafted into a seamless piece. Here is what I conclude: His first draft is really his fifth draft. The first four are squeezed on all those little index cards.

This is a great thing to do if it works for you.

Alas, it seems not to work for me, and I accept that. My methods have their inefficiencies, but they hold benefits as well. It may be my brain’s limitations. One of those limitations may involve controlling tendencies that rein in imagination. That is, I want to write something good. I don’t want things to go wrong. Therefore, I must make my characters behave as if they are my children and I’m taking them to a nice restaurant. My characters have to dress nicely, and I don’t want them bothering the other diners.

I have to remind myself my characters aren’t people. They need to bother people. Unfortunately, they often don’t. Not enough. Fortunately, I am good at criticizing my own work. I can look at my characters after I’ve written a full draft, and say, “These people are boring. Can’t you make them do something interesting?”

Aha. Yes I can, indeed. Almost immediately, they start bothering the other diners, behaving immorally, and dressing inappropriately, and the entire project improves greatly.

(By the way, for anyone who likes outside-the-box dark fantasy and hasn’t read Tim Powers, do check him out. He has a new book out, Hide Me Among the Graves, which I’m looking forward to reading. Last year’s collection, The Bible Repairman and Other Stories is a dark hoot. I had never heard of Bible repairmen before, and now I’m glad I have.)

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