What do you owe your characters?
The Long Walk : A Writer’s Journey #3
Last week we talked about what we owed our audience in terms of good writing. This week, it’s about what we owe our characters, and what we owe them, is our attention.
We must listen when they speak.
Ask any writer of fiction and they will tell you, yes, the characters do speak. And you must listen.
How do they speak you ask? Well, my friends. It works like this. Had I not listened to my characters when I wrote Emerged From Darkness, it would have been a completely different animal altogether. It would have been a totally different book. Originally what I had slated was a much darker story, more grounded and actually an entirely different cast of characters. John Paul Jones was the link, he was also in the original story, along with Franklin, but the rest were entirely different characters not present in the written material. So what happened was, as I began my labor intensive research…..well, I hid in my bed in a blanket fort, with a laptop, cheetoh’s, and Dr. Pepper and watched 16hrs of Revolutionary War Documentaries…..
IT’S A PROCESS, DON’T JUDGE!
Anyway, as I was researching I began to form these characters, basic storyline, plots and so on, and then began to write. But the writing was stilted, stiff, ungainly. It was like slogging through mud, and I slogged through something like three chapters of it. The dialogue was rough, and I was plagued with these niggling thoughts that weren’t anything like what I was trying to write, and it was all just a mess. And worst of all I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was wrong. The characters seemed real enough, the storyline that was was emerging, and the creative juices were flowing. But there just wasn’t any story coming out. It was slow, and ponderous, and it just wasn’t working. And it went on like that for days, almost a week, until it slowly started to sink in.
I wasn’t writing what the characters wanted me to write. I wasn’t listening to them.
Hell, for that matter I was trying to breath life into characters that didn’t want to come alive, it just wouldn’t take. And worse still, others characters that weren’t even in the thing were dancing all across the pages in vivid detail, complete with dialogue and backgrounds, and altogether completely different scenes. And that’s when I began to understand. I could have avoided that whole swampy boondoggle days ago, if i’d have just simply stopped, and really listened to the characters speak.
So I did just that. I stopped, and started again, writing a fresh new scene completely unrelated to the story I was doing. And Boom. There it was. The story I was meant to write in the first place. So off I went, and in no time the machine was humming along beautifully. And all because I simply listened to what the characters were telling me.
And that’s it for this week.
Listen to your characters. If it is coming out rough, or not coming at all, and you don’t know what’s wrong. Stop, and listen. Break it off and just let the scene you want to write flow, and chances are you’ll have it. You’ll have your story. It might be entirely different from what you originally intended or it might be just slightly different, with a different curves. But it will be true, and it will sing.