Being in a complicated relationship with your characters —
A comparison on writing characters with a will of their own and complicated relationships and friendships.
From the very beginning, my characters asserted their will, told me what they wanted and how they were going to do it, and all I could do was listen and write down their stories.
I don’t believe that is in any way unique to me — I have heard the same from many of my writer friends.
So, what do you do when you had the whole story plotted out, in great detail, and your main character throws you a curveball that spins you around, throws you upside down and turns your brain inside out?
Well, in my case, as I don’t plot in too much detail, I tend to follow where I’m led and adjust my plotting accordingly. I’ve had too many ‘OMG’ moments when I’ve been dragged toward what I at first thought was a wild tangent, only to realize that it was actually pivotal to the main plot all along. I guess we sometimes have to trust that our leading man or woman knows better than us what needs to happen.
But what if you’ve been pushed so far out on that limb you no longer know where it’s all going? My advice would be to backtrack, find the point where it no longer makes sense, and work from there.
Anyway, back to having a complicated relationship with your characters. While I was writing my first book, my characters behaved themselves and allowed me to write the story the way they’d told it to me. To be fair, I’d lived with them in my head for ten years by the time I started writing, so I pretty much knew it all by heart.
Once I was getting to the end of the book, I realized there was another story to tell. One that grew from my characters’ relationship with each other, and a terrifying ordeal in the past. This is where they started telling me in detail what was going happen and how they were going to deal with their situation. Especially my main man. He was a constant, nagging voice in my ear, and I can tell you, the things he knew would happen to him were not very nice, to put it mildly. But he insisted and said it had to be that way whether or not he survived his ordeal. I had to make the choice of listening to him or write the story the way I felt it should be. Guess whose version I went with?
My leading lady was none too pleased with me and kept ranting in my other ear that it was not fair, and he would never do that to her, and she would never allow it to happen, but in the end, even she had to concede and allow the pieces to fall where they may. Of course, it was then up to me to make sense of it all and put it in some kind of coherent order, while still having them ranting and raving in my head.
While all this was going on, some of the secondary characters were getting restless and wanted to tell me their stories as well. They’d had enough of waiting and were getting louder every day. The only way I could appease them was to make a rough outline of what their stories were and make notes of the key events they were lobbing at me. Finally, they relented and gave me some peace to finish what I was already working on.
Having your characters shouting, whispering, nagging, grumbling and commenting in your head, not just while you’re awake, but in your dreams as well, can be exhausting. You want them to go away, but you also want them to be there so you can write the story.
I love the relationship I’ve built up with my characters and how they’ve grown from a vague vision in my head, to lifelike people with a rich past, an active, fast-paced and energetic present, and a future that at times seems fraught with drama and life changing events, but also suffused with so much loving.
I enjoy having conversations with them — no, I’m not crazy, I know they’re not real — and figuring out what makes them tick, what drives them forward and what sets their senses on fire. It’s fascinating, frustrating, captivating and sometimes confusing, but always a path I want to follow into the deepest shadows and the brightest sunlight. I’ll take the good, the bad and the beautifully ugly.
As I said — it’s complicated.
Sometimes, our real relationships are complicated in a similar way. We want to be with our friends and loved ones, but we also need some time away from them.
We need some peace and quiet around us and also in our heads, but we can’t always get it. Some of my friends are very good at getting in touch when they need a chat, someone to listen, or a shoulder to cry on, but they’re not always so good at returning the favor.
During the first lockdown, a year ago now, I reached out to many of them to check in and see how they were doing. We were all in a bit of a state of shock, I think, and I just wanted to let them know I was there for them. They were all grateful and responded, letting me know they were okay.
Months later, we were in lockdown again, and this time I kind of hoped they would reach out to me. One or two did, and they are the ones I know are truly my friends, but many didn’t. And that’s okay. If they don’t see things the way I do, then I can’t make them. But it has crystallized who my true friends are, the ones that see me for me, who care about how I feel, and who will take the time to make sure we stay in contact. Virtual hugs have become a thing.
The others? I won’t cut them out of my life, but I will wait for them to come back to me. If they don’t, at least I will know I tried.
We can all do with someone thinking of us and checking in. I will still do it to my close friends, because I love them and care about them.
It’s a complicated life with complicated relationships.