I have often read of the different approaches writers take to their work. Some have every scene mapped out in advance, every character portrait painted, before the opening words find their way to the page. Others just—let it happen. It seems to me that both approaches have their benefits—and their downfalls. If all is planned in advance, will there be surprises sufficient to continue to engage the reader? On the other hand, if events are allowed to happen without any advance thought, will what ultimately transpires prove to be internally consistent? Then, of course, we writers tell our stories through our characters and—as every writer knows—characters have minds of their own.
It is true. A writer may begin with the purest of intentions, but as things trip off from the ends of the writer’s fingers to the keyboard and onto the screen—things happen. Characters do and say things that were not anticipated. These things may leave the writer shocked, laughing, or even mourning. Add to that the fact that characters think their own thoughts, from the purest to the most despicable. Thus, this writer often finds herself wondering: was that always inside of me? Was it just a matter of my not having entertained those thoughts in the past?
From where do these unexpected turns and revelations come? Does a writer dream them first? Are they floating around in her subconscious mind until they simply burst out from the tips of her fingers? And, what is this writer to do with the wayward character who simply will not abide by the rules, who displays skills of which I previously had been unaware, who says the most outrageous things, or perhaps, who says nothing at all. . . ?
When I started writing my first full-length work, Oathtaker, I knew the opening scene, the key issue I wished to address, and the ultimate means by which the central dilemma would be resolved—but that was about it. As I set out, characters came and left as scenes unfolded before me. (I wonder, when a reader says that the work has twists and turns and unexpected surprises, do those things line up with what this writer herself was surprised to discover?) The unexpected quick wit of a participant in the story could make be burst into laughter. The history that a character told could leave me loving or hating him, but in either case, knowing him better. And what was I to do with the character who, as the story unfolded, turned out to be something I had not known in advance? There were times in my writing when, until the words were presented before me in black and white on the computer screen, I was as surprised as might be any future reader. And then, of course, I also experienced the phenomenon of a character who showed up unexpectedly in a scene. Nearing the end of my first work, putting together the final scenes, I wrote: “One more time, the great oak door opened and closed. Mara glanced upwards. The latest and last of the Council members to arrive. . . .”
A moment passed.
The sound of my fingers skittering over the keyboard stopped.
I looked up to the screen for confirmation. Was it possible? Could that person be there, in that role, at that time, doing that thing? I started to examine this new discovery, using all my best lawyerly skills. Does it work? Is it consistent?
Yes, characters can do amazing things. To illustrate this further, I thought I would share a quick excerpt from an article I recently read. “A Hard-Boiled Music,” by Otto Penzler, was published in the September 16, 2013, issue of National Review. The article is about a recently deceased author, Elmore Leonard. Penzler compares Leonard’s writing to “a beautiful jazz riff.” I admit I have not read any works by Leonard, so I am unable to speak to his “voice.” In any case, according to Penzler, it was Leonard’s “habit” to have only “a vague idea of what he wanted to write. . . .” Leonard “rarely knew where the plot was going to take him.” Rather, for Leonard, “by the time he had gotten to the halfway mark, his guys, as he called them, had taken over, frequently surprising him.” Penzler then proceeds to tell the following story about a conversation he had once had with Leonard:
“He liked to talk about his books while they were in progress and once was dismayed about an unexpected turn of events. He was telling a story when he said he didn’t know what he was going to do. He was up to page 130 and some minor character had just shot the guy who was supposed to be the hero—or at least the most important figure in the book, as it was not Leonard’s style to make his characters genuine heroes. . . .
I suggested rewriting the scene in which his protagonist went and got himself killed. He looked at me incredulously. ‘No, you don’t understand,’ he said. ‘It already happened. He’s dead. You can’t bring him back.’”
Yes, characters can surprise us--and it is that fact that drives this writer in her continuing endeavor to tell a story.
(For more on this author and work, see www.oathtaker.com.)