Who I am, and why I write

Welcome! My name is Erin Manning, and I write clean Young Adult fiction for ages 12 and up. I'm an avid reader and I've been...

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Writing talk: characters

There's an old saying about how the way to make God laugh is to tell Him your plans. I had planned on some focused, disciplined blog writing focusing on my newest project; I had not planned on an emergency dental visit and a looming root canal.

One thing you find out as a writer is that your original plans for the story may also make you laugh by the time you've finished writing. The very first "book" I ever completed, a fairy tale I started writing when I was fifteen, was supposed to be dark and tragic; I ended up writing more like A.A. Milne than like J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Fairy Godmother Expedition ended up being an unpublished and comic novella. No matter how many plans you make for your characters, if you are writing well at all, you will learn that your characters have ideas of their own; in fact, one of the surest ways to spot a flat or unconvincing character is to look for the character who always does and says exactly what he or she is told by the writer to do or say.

I realize that this will sound odd to those who don't write fiction. But fiction writers know that in order to be any good at all characters have to resemble real people, and real people are unpredictable. The best way to explain it, I think, is this: have you ever had to meet with someone, or make an important call, or do some other thing that is outside of your routine, and in the process of preparing for it you start to rehearse the scene in your mind as you imagine it will be? "Let's see," you think to yourself as you reach for the phone. "I'll ask Jane how she's been doing, and ask about her grandchildren, and get her to tell me a little about what she's planning for her spring garden--and then I'll sort of ease into asking her to help with the parish fundraiser."

In your mind, the whole conversation is unfolding; if you have a good imagination you might "hear" the sentences you're speaking and Jane's replies, and you might even notice her dog barking in the background as he usually does when you call. But when you finally get Jane on the phone, chances are nothing happens as you expect. Perhaps one of her grandchildren answers and talks to you in a polite but clueless manner until Jane grabs the phone. Perhaps Jane says in a rush that she'll call you back--she's at the store. Perhaps Jane spends thirty minutes telling you about a health problem and you realize it would be impolite to sign her up to take carnival tickets. When you planned out the imaginary conversation in your mind, you had full control over Jane's responses; but when the real Jane is talking, you have to listen to what she actually says.

For a writer, the situation is similar: you plan out your scenes; you rehearse your characters' conversations. But then when you actually start writing, you have to think of these characters as real people--real, that is, within the confines of the story. They have to act in character, and that means you can't just put any old words in their mouths, or force them to do any old thing. A boy afraid of heights might slowly conquer that fear, but he's not going to forget he's afraid and rush up a ladder just because the events of the story call for it; a female character who likes to present a strong, tough image to the world isn't going to change into a shy, giggling girl just because she puts on a dress and goes to a dance.The sloppiest writing is the kind that treats characters like puppets.

In my current WIP (writer slang for "work in progress), I initially intended the main character to be a little older than he is, and to be the kind of person who doesn't take anything seriously. By the time I had completed the first chapter, though, I knew that the events of the story didn't work for a character who fit my original plan. As soon as he appeared on the page, I realized that his character type was quite different from my first idea of him, and the more I wrote the more I realized that the happy-go-lucky jokester character would have been the wrong fit entirely for a story that was going to take the directions this one does.

But how do you know when you've let a character go on too long in the wrong direction? We'll save that for next time.