I have been working all afternoon with a group of disagreeable characters. They are argumentative, insulting, highly opinionated and thoroughly unpleasant. I am tempted to walk away from them and never see them again, but unfortunately I’m stuck with them. They belong to a story I am writing.
Sometimes the characters I create do their thing without protest and make my writer’s heart rejoice. Not this time. These individuals practically pound on the computer screen with their demands. Even when I walk away from my desk, they keep nattering away inside my head.
“I won’t DO that,” one of them whines. “That’s not who I AM.”
“And who do you think thought you up?” I ask. Icily.
“You did, and a pretty lousy job you’ve done till now,” snaps another of my miserable brainchildren. “Can’t you see that you’re headed in the wrong direction?”
I close my eyes and go over what I have done so far. I have covered all the bases, done the right things with all the ways of showing character, carefully scripted the dialogue, paid attention to transition and description and voice…
“Yo!” This from another imaginary source. “The voice is what’s wrong. How come you don’t see this, Dopey? How long have you been writing, anyway?”
Imagined conversations aside, characters are hard taskmasters. If they are not fleshed out properly, they emerge as cardboard cutouts that are about as interesting as animal crackers. If they step out of character even for a sentence, the storyline jolts and sets the reader’s teeth on edge. Describe them too much, and the pace of the writing lags. Don’t describe them at all, and nobody can visualize them.
It would be tempting to ignore them, but good fiction depends on well drawn people. I might not remember much about the four plot-driven books I read last week, but I will never forget Mr. Micawber or D’Artagnan or Jo March or Jean Valjean. The book-people who live on for us are the ones who touch our hearts or our imaginations, the ones who make us laugh or cry because they remind us of who we are or what we wish to be.
So, faced with disgruntled characters of my own making, I have a choice: scrap them completely or go back and make absolutely sure I know them, their habits, their likes, their dislikes, their secrets and their weaknesses. Only when I know these people as I know my own children (or perhaps even better) can I begin to rewrite and revise.
All this reminds me of another book and another dilemma. While writing Candle In the Wind, there was a moment when nothing went right. The pace was off. The dialogue didn’t flow. I knew what I wanted to do, knew where I wanted to go, but nothing worked. Finally, in abject despair, I crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head.
In the middle of the night I sat bolt upright in bed. The voice was what was wrong!
First thing next morning I changed the narrative from third to first person, and all was well.
“Of course it was the voice, Dopey!”
I hate to admit it, but sometimes my characters get it right.
On this warm spring night
Sitting with an idle pen,
Gazing at the moon.