Posted by: Alastair Rosie | July 17, 2012

Let Your Characters Go!

As I’ve mentioned on my Facebook page, I’ve been editing The Deepening Dark lately. It’s a fantasy story set in a mythical world not unlike our world. It has people, elves, dwarves (although they don’t appear until the second book), horses, lions, wolves, in short all of the flora and fauna we’re used to with a few additions like dragons and unicorns thrown in.

This is the final draft before I submit it for the last edit. It was finished last year but I’m in no rush to publish and so I left the printed copy in a filing cabinet and got on with other writing tasks. Two months ago I dragged it out and put it through the harshest of all tests; I read it through myself without making changes and pretending I was reading it for the first time. It passed the test, I kept turning the pages and wanting to know more. I am the harshest critic of all when it comes to my work. If something isn’t working I stop and put it aside or delete and start again.

As I was editing, I got to thinking about that first ever draft way back in 2000 when I was still in Australia. Back then it had a different name, The Calling, and a different heroine, Murron. Okay, I did like Murron in Braveheart but just kept the name, and for a while it seemed like it was going well. Somewhere along the line however I got stuck, like about halfway. I tried various rewrites to no avail and put it aside for another book.

Many writers, this one included, have a set plan of action. We have a world in chaos, an unlikely hero/heroine, a task to complete that involves overcoming obstacles, fighting Threshold Guardians, meeting Allies, Mentors and Enemies on their way to the Inmost Tomb. They seize the Boon or Treasure, kill the bad guy or at least convince him or her to let them go, and return to the world they came from with something to benefit mankind or their local community. It’s a familiar theme and has many variations, but even those who try to invent something new tend to fall back to some degree on this form.

So we have the Protagonist, there’s a gender neutral term for you! Let’s invent one, Joe, a tough hard-boiled New York cop who attends the scene of a shooting to find Josephine standing over the body of a vampire. We aren’t sure if it’s a real vampire, he could have had exotic dental work done, but she has the gun, she’s been wounded and he’s pretty sure she was the dead man’s intended victim. He takes her statement and leaves. A day or two later there’s a strange killing in the city, a man is found drained of blood with strange marks on his neck. So Joe goes on the hunt, he’s our main character, the Protagonist and out there is a Villain creating vampires to prey on us. Josephine may come back into it but only on a minor level. She plays the role of the Call to Adventure, starting our Protagonist on his journey, if she reappears later on she may become a Minor Helper.

But what happens if you back up and tell the story from her perspective? What if Josephine had tracked this vampire and taken him out? What if the dead vampire was a rogue preying on humans and she’s trying to find the vampire who turned him? What if Josephine is also a vampire tasked with policing the vampire nation? A bit like a vampire cop and similar to the role Joe plays day in day out.

Straight away you’ve switched a minor character to a major one and changed the story completely. Maybe she has to save Joe but at the cost of revealing her true identity, which could lead to continued involvement or a relationship, even a second book.

There’s no voodoo involved here. All I’ve done is move into her body and tell the story from her perspective, it’s letting go of your preconceived ideas and allowing your characters take charge, while you just trot along behind them with pen and paper. We writers can be control freaks and feel the need to control our unruly characters, especially the minor ones who, like understudies, crave the limelight and pray for the moment an actor breaks their leg. I’ve read quite a few books over the years where the writers had total control of their characters to the point of becoming control freaks. As a writer I can sense that almost instinctively. Invariably the book leaves me feeling disappointed because I know the writer could have done better and I’m not pointing the finger, I’ve done the same thing and after the story was published sat back and read it again and thought, if only I’d deviated a little and let my characters go.

Getting back to The Deepening Dark, I have a queen driven into exile, her kingdom has been seized and she’s fighting an imperial army that sounds almost Roman. Hey I loved Boudica as a child, I think I read her story more than I read the bible! Now my exiled queen, Rhianna, does appear in the original draft. I’ve got a scene with her meeting Murron’s father and the reader learns of her struggle to free her people. But… she was a minor character.

Some years ago while going through the latest draft, I do rename and rewrite older drafts, I stopped at that scene. The rebellion has been going on for some time and I thought. What if the story starts with her instead of Murron? I got curious, opened up a blank document and started writing the story of Rhianna’s rebellion. By the time I was up to chapter four I knew I had the bug. You know it when the urge to write takes over your whole life, you survive on basic food, cigarettes and coffee, and live and breathe your characters. Soon I’d completed a first draft. At the time it was part one of book one, which evolved into an entire book simply by taking other minor characters and giving them meatier roles. It was similar to what I’d done with Rhianna. I soon had Brea, my healer, the elves Wenowyn and Elannesse, the she bears my battle maidens, and amongst the latter I found enough minor characters to flesh out the story.

The book is a good example of what happens when you stop trying to control everything and go back to letting your characters tell the story. Ultimately you are a storyteller. Forget the money, what an agent might think, the public opinion, and just focus on your characters, all of them. Murron is still there but she won’t come onto the scene just yet, we have to prepare the world for her coming. So what I wrote before isn’t wasted, it just wasn’t where the story was supposed to start and letting go and allowing myself into Rhianna’s skin gave me the motivation to move forward and overcome the obstacles.

It’s a risky task for a writer but one we have to face up to when we’re swamped. It doesn’t always work and sometimes we have to pull minor characters into line because they do try to take over. But if you’re stuck halfway through don’t despair. Look at your minor characters, the grocery clerk, the queen’s handmaiden, the blacksmith, a victim, who may actually be dead. Does he or she have to die? What if they survive? I stopped one minor character from being killed in a vampire book I’m working on in my spare time and she became the lead. Examine these characters and try to tell the story from someone else’s side. One technique I have is to interview them. I set myself up with a fake name and ask questions and record their answers. The saved interview serves as invaluable background information for your book. Ask them any question you want, from what colour they like to their solution to the banking crisis. Much of this information may never make it into the final mix but it fleshes out your character, gives her hopes and dreams, fears and strengths.

As for your other draft, you don’t have toss out all that hard work, put it aside for now and try letting this minor character tell the story. It may not work but an extraordinary person is just an ordinary person who’s done extra-ordinary things. By doing this you’re providing new neural pathways for those creative juices. It’s called letting go of your characters and giving them room to grow and move. If it all goes south you can always pull them back, but more often than not it can lead you to places you never dreamed possible, like those two magical words: The End.

And that can’t be a bad thing.

I wish you all the best with your writing career.

Written by Alastair Rosie

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