Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Why Characters Say No

Ever had a comprehensive outline with fully developed characters but got halfway through the first draft and realized a character can't possibly perform the task you've assigned him? No? Lucky you.

Happens to me all the time.

Writing a reluctant character feels like I'm dragging my whimpering dog into the vet's office as he's bracing himself with his front paws. When that doesn't work, his last act of defiance (or sheer terror) is to defecate at my feet.

Nothing quite like realizing your words are no better than dog poop.

I don't know if this phenomenon is something unique to amateur writers, multi-taskers, or people with mild ADHD tendencies, but for me, it doesn't matter how well I outline, how thoroughly I research, or how detailed my character sketches are, most of my characters are never fully fleshed out until I start writing the first draft.

Why won't they just do what I tell them to do?

Characters aren't obedient creations that I can always manipulate and control. That sounds utterly ridiculous to me even as I type it. But my characters have instincts -- my instincts. They know when something doesn't feel right because somewhere in my gut, heart, or head, I'm telling them so.

Why won't that little girl use a public restroom? Why isn't that woman afraid of spiders? Why won't that man take off work and go play golf?

Somewhere during development of these characters, they've exhibited behavior that doesn't jive and even though I can't necessarily verbalize the reasons, I know what I want them to do won't work. It's not in their nature or it contradicts previous behavior in the story.

How do I know this if I don't know why I know it?

I know my characters for the same reason I know my kids -- not because I gave birth to them but because I'm a witness to their entire lives. My middle son, the distance runner, would no sooner get run down by bad guys than my youngest would if there was a nearby tree, pole, or wall he could scale. And the oldest? He wouldn't run from bad guys at all. He's training to be a professional wrestler so he'd just beat the crap out of them.

We writers know our characters better than we may consciously recognize and yet, we're still capable of writing accidental inconsistencies. But I can't knowingly fool my characters into doing something against their nature any more than I can fool my dog into going to the vet's office. Well, not without cleaning up poop.


ECHenry said...

Very funny post MarryAn,

You should see character transfomation from outline to 1st draft as a halmark that, yes, you are indeed a good writer.

You're dilema is what I actually stive for as a writer -- characters that come alive and tell their own story!

So keep cleaning the poop, its part of the re-writing stage, and EVERY GREAT WRITER has to do that, though they probably call it something more elliquent than, "cleaning up poop."

Love the way you blend in elements of your personal life in your posts. You're turning into quite the storyteller -- just through writing blogs! Keep up the good work.

- E.C. Henry in Bonney Lake, WA

Anonymous said...

I am 60 pages into my script right now and man, did they just run away with the story on me... bugger!

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Speaking of, that's about how far I am into your Seville script. On so many drugs (root canal, remember?) that it's hard for me to read for long periods of time online. Maybe I should print it...

MaryAn Batchellor said...

EC, that was my 205th post. I do hope 200 posts from now, we'll see another marked improvement. I wonder, however, if at some point, writers hit a glass ceiling.


mernitman said...

When your characters have minds of their own (and/or wills) it generally means you've created a compelling, credible character.

If they start telling you who really killed the Kennedys, where Jimmy Hoffa is buried, or that you are really a princess from the planet Zygon and they're coming to take you back to your rightful throne... THEN you're in trouble.

Anonymous said...

hopefully you won't need a shot of demerol to get through the last act haha... hey, Jack Sparrow panty liners

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Billy -- and I was so looking forward to seeing the ol' homestead again.:(

Todd - you neglected to mention the eyebrow pencils and eye shadow and eye liner but the one I'm howling over is the mayonaise -- the deleted scenes on the POTC show ol' Jack responding to the comment "damned to the depths whatever man that thought up parlay" with a comment about the French being the makers of mayonaise.

Chris Collins said...

Hi MaryAn,
I've just come across your blog and I know exactly what you're on about. I too am a compulsive writer with occasional dry spots. I've been lucky enough to have a few short stories published in non-paying, low-circulation mags that barely anyone has heard of. The few times I've had an acceptance from an editor I think 'YES! Now it begins!'. Well it's begun about 5 times for me now. Each time I see my stories in print though, I'm embarrassed to think that I ever wanted the world to see them, that I thought they were somehwo good enough. This is compounded by the fact that no one has yet wanted to pay me for my fiction.
All I can say is, keep writing. If your characters behave unpredictably, buld a plot around them that demands that behaviour of them. But, most importantly, keep writing.
I've enjoyed what I've read of your blogs. Keep them up too.

Rolski said...

I like your blog a lot. This was my favourite of your posts.

I find my characters aren't my creations. They just live inside my head and get put into the situations I write about.

The dialogue they spout comes directly from the characters themselves.

You might not think your characters are fully developed when you write your outline, but they are. Just like meeting strangers, you simply haven't got to know them yet.