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Thursday, January 07, 2010

I'm Not In Charge

Once upon a time, before I ever started writing (which was in 8th grade), I believed the author had complete control over her stories and her characters. Then I put pen to notebook and discovered that my characters were the ones in control. I didn't worry about it too much, but I did check out every book the library had on how to be a writer.

I found out I was doing everything wrong. Instead of sitting down and just writing, I needed to color code index cards and pin them to my corkboard in the order that I would be putting the scenes. I was told to take different colored highlighters, pull out my favorite books, and highlight the different parts--like dialogue, introspection, narrative, etc. There was more stuff along these lines, however, most of it didn't stick in my memory like the terrifying (and imagination draining) 3x5 cards did.

As I struggled to adapt to what these books by real authors said I had to do, I realized I hated writing. I tossed my index cards in a drawer and said, maybe I'll never be a successful writer, but I have to do it my way where the characters are in control or I won't write at all.

It was years and years later before I learned there are seat of the pants writers (me!) and plotters (the authors of all those books I read on how to write) and that both ways work. Actually, I'm more of a pantser/plotter hybrid, and since being published, I've moved more toward center, but no one will ever mistake me for a plotter.

Because, you see, my characters still have control. I don't pick their names--they tell me their names. If I don't like it, that's just too damn bad. I'm not kidding about that. This mostly pertains to their first names, almost never their last names, but still, I see other authors blog about choosing names for their heroes and heroines and I'm like, wow, some authors really get to pick? Amazing. :-) One of my heroines pronounces her name "wrong." Or at least she pronounces it different than standard. I have no choice about that either.

I have no choice on who my characters pair up with. One day, I'll have a single character. The next day, I'll have scenes of him/her with his/her hero or heroine. It is a fait accompli.

When I was having incredible trouble with Maia and Creed, I thought maybe they'd been wrong and they didn't belong together. I tried first to match Maia up with someone else. Then I tried to match Creed. And I got nothing. Absolutely nothing. They had to be together or there was no story.

I don't get to make up my characters' backstories. Those, too, are presented to me as done deals. Sometimes I don't even know their backstories when I start a book. I had absolutely zero idea what was haunting Damon in Ravyn's Flight until I was nearly halfway through the first draft. Then he dropped it on me like a bombshell. I had to go back and add all kinds of foreshadowing because I couldn't hint at what he hadn't told me.

Or take Kel from In the Darkest Night, coming out in April. I knew he'd been captured and tortured, but I didn't know by whom or why. I knew something beyond that had happened while he'd been held prisoner, something he considered so bad, he refused to share it with me. I didn't find out what it was until we were well into the book.

I have no control over my characters' personalities. I hear them in my head and that's what I'm caught with. I originally thought Shona from Edge of Dawn was a confident, extroverted party girl because the first scene I saw of her was in a crowded bar. That's how I tried to write her...and I spun my wheels until I accepted that she wasn't how I envisioned her.

You see, that's the thing. Maybe plotters have control, but not all writers work that way. I can't work that way. I heard someone report another writer said that her characters never surprise her. I found that idea horrifying. No surprises? Why bother to write?

I want surprises. I want my characters to tell me who they are and who their hero/heroine is. I want them to tell me what happened to them in the past that shaped who they are today.

It's a good thing I feel this way, because every single time that I've strayed away from how my characters would behave, I can't write forward. Maybe I'll make it a little ways beyond the point where it happens (sometimes just far enough that I don't know where the mistake occurred), but I always end up stuck. I sat for five weeks on Eternal Nights because of a kiss. Sigh. I had Wyatt knowingly kiss Kendall. Found out after I wrote and cut, wrote and cut, and wrote and cut for five weeks, that he wouldn't do that. He knows how easy she spooks. I went back and rewrote the scene so that he unknowingly kissed Kendall (he was mostly unconscious) and was able to write the entire rest of the book.

So the next time you read a book and wonder why the author did something, keep in mind that in some cases it's the characters, not the author who is running things.