Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Whose Story Is It?

"Without characters there's no story."
~ Karl Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact


"When I hit a real block, I find it’s usually because I've...said something false or made a character do what he doesn't want to do."
~ Anne Tyler


About a year ago, I was listening to a guest speaker -- let's call him Tom -- at a writer's group. He was talking about characters.

"In the first half of your story," he said, "let your characters do what they want. But when you get to the second half, you've got to reign them in."

Tom was pretty insistent, and it was all I could do to not jump up and shriek NO!...not to the first half of his statement, but to the second.

I was reminded of that story some months later when I began working with a new coaching client. She'd written a powerful memoir -- so powerful that it had been nominated for a literary award. Now, a fictional character had accosted her in a misty Irish glen and was insisting that she write his story.

"But I've never written a novel," she exclaimed. "I don't know how!"

"You don't have to know how," I replied. "All you have to do is write his memoir."

Thing is, whatever story we're telling -- whether it's a novel, short story, stage play or screenplay -- we're writing someone's story.

What we're writing is their story. And what we're often discovering in that first draft is not only what that story is but who that character is...who all the characters are who make up that world.

"I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected."
~ Stephen King

Tom's point was that we spend the first half of our story discovering who the character is. From there, we spend the rest of the story making sure the character hews to that portrait.

My point is that we may only truly discover who that character is and what she's about by writing through to the end. Why stifle the creative process just when we've finally surrendered to the story's unfoldment? Why limit ourselves and our characters by insisting that at a certain point in the draft, character and story are fixed for all time?

When I was working on the first draft of The StarQuest (the first of two projected sequels to The MoonQuest), I had a pretty good idea who the villain of the story was and to what unpleasant end she would come in the final scenes. At least, I thought I did...

Then, on my last day of work on that draft, as I was letting one of the final scenes write itself, something unanticipated happened: Instead of the ugly death I was expecting, the villain had a profoundly redemptive experience that, within a few paragraphs, had transformed her from ugly antagonist into a positive force for continuing good. I was stunned.

In that moment, I had two choices: I could follow Tom's advice and refuse the villain her redemption, or I could surrender to the character's higher imperative and permit the alchemy to occur. I chose the latter, not only because I believe my stories and their characters are smarter than I am, but because my villain's transformation supports one of the story's central themes in ways I would have been hard-pressed to consciously manufacture.

In The MoonQuest, much about the character O'ric shifted -- not only through the first draft, but through many of the drafts. He shifted not because I couldn't reign him in. He shifted because, through the writing, I began to understand more clearly who he truly was, both within himself and to the story.

In the "rules for character-building" that I use when I teach workshops on characterization, Rule #10 reads "How did John become Jane? And why is she suddenly the villain?"

Often, characters in our stories want to undergo radical changes through the course of that first draft. Too often, we follow Tom's advice and refuse them that freedom.

My view is that our job as Writer God is to give our characters absolute freedom through the entire first draft of our story...and, sometimes, beyond.

Unlike Tom, I say, Let your characters be as inconsistent and mercurial as they want to be. Let them veer off in completely different directions partway, if that’s what they choose. Let your villains become heroes and your heroes become villains. Let them change names, physical characteristics, motivations and story-significance. Let them change gender.

Only by allowing them that freedom in your first draft will you learn who they truly are and be true to their story. After all, it's their story you're telling.
I do my best work when I feel least like its source and most like its channel.
~Lawrence Block

Let your first draft, as I said earlier, be your journey of discovery: of your characters and of their story. Through that journey, you will grow into your story and its characters. You might, as I did in The StarQuest, only discover something of major significance about an important character on the final page of the draft. That’s okay. Use your next draft to bring consistency to the characters you now know more fully.

Remember whose story you're telling...and get out of the way!
"It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does."
~ William Faulkner

• How can you better trust your characters to reveal themselves to you?

• How can you stop trying to control your stories and, instead, let them emerge organically?

• How can you better surrender to the magic out of which all creativity is birthed?

• How can you trust that your stories and characters know themselves better than you do?

• How can you let yourself be surprised -- by your characters and by their stories?

You'll get help answering these and other questions about your writing process and projects by participating in The Coast to Coast Coaching Group for Writers that starts up on June 13. Register through this link.

Art credits: 1) Detail from the Zazzle "fictional character" t-shirt; 2) Image from the Talk Stephen King blog; 3) Detail from the cover of Karl Iglesias's book, Writing for Emotional Impact

4 comments:

Karen Walker said...

Thank you, Mark David, for all you do to help writers write. I am still reeling from our session today. It was profound and earth shattering. Oh, and thanks for linking to my memoir in this post. You are too kind.
Karen

kathleen duey said...

I could not agree more. Art will take skill places that skill will NEVER find on its own.

Tahlia said...

I agree absolutely. In writing the sequal to 'Lethal Inheritance' (YA fantasy - read ch 1 on http://publishersearch.wordpress.com), one of my characters did something I thought was stupid. I hadn't even considered this development in the story, but when I went along with it, I wrote something much more surprising and interesting than what I had planned.

I'd say let them free later in the story, let them surprise us and the reader. If they're real characters to you they'll stay true to themselves.

Mark David Gerson said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences, Tahlia.