On April 19, 2012, Chloral Florderoy wrote, An author told me once that there comes a point in the writing process when the characters start talking to you. I mean, you know what they would do/say in a situation because you've spent a long time with them and you feel as though you know them. Does this mean that it's hard when it comes time to write their deaths? How have you dealt with making bad things happen to your characters, or is it fun for you?
Every writer is different. My characters don’t talk to me unless I start the conversation, generally on paper. I may interview them to find out what they’d do in a particular situation. Otherwise it’s rare for one of them to chime in when I’m out and about in the world.
But recently a friend described a close friend of hers, someone I know a little, and his flaws sounded like one of my character’s flaws. That was a nice moment, when my character came to life in life.
As for making bad things happen, depends on the character. If it’s my main and I love her, then it’s hard. If she suffers, I suffer. And a particularly bad kind of pain is the self-inflicted kind. If my character behaves foolishly or inappropriately or hurts someone because of her faults and suffers the consequences, and she knows she’s to blame, then ouch! I squirm and writhe along with her. In Fairest, for example, Aza’s desire to be beautiful gets her into trouble over and over again.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling for our characters. If our emotions are engaged, the reader’s likely will be too.
When I killed Ella’s mother in Ella Enchanted I used some of my own feelings from when my mother died, which had happened about six years before I started writing the book. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. My writing was more authentic, and my grief for my mother no less real. If you’ve never lost someone you love, you can remember the loss of a pet or even a beloved object. It’s not the same of course, but you can still use the sadness.
On the other hand, killing a bad character is fun. In Fairest again, I enjoyed doing Skulni in. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, knocking Vollys off was a pleasure too. She has redeeming qualities but she’s evil and I reveled in ending her in a melodramatic way. I didn’t kill Hattie in Ella Enchanted, but it was a delight to make trouble for her. She’s so self-satisfied that I always wanted to take her down a peg or two.
But killing is only an extreme case of getting our characters into trouble, which we have to do constantly. At the beginning we may not know them well enough to predict what they’ll say, do, and feel, so we have to throw them into situations, and initially we have to dream up responses for them, responses that are expressed in the ordinary way, through action, thoughts, feelings, dialogue, and occasionally setting. Each response narrows the possibilities for the next situation. A character who jumps whenever he hears a loud noise probably won't be calm in the face of a snarling Rottweiler, possibly not even in the face of a snarling toy poodle.
But anxiety isn’t enough to make a complex character. Maybe as soon as the dog showdown is over, our character texts twelve of his closest friends. We’ve learned something else. And suppose he apologizes to the dog’s owner for being snarled at and rushes to the pet food store to buy a treat for the dog. Put all this together, and pretty soon your characters will be talking to you, too, and going with you when you walk your own dog.
Suppose we toss Jack into a new environment. He’s into fencing, so at the start of our story his supportive parents enroll him in a fencing club.
Some people and characters are fine with strangers. They know just how to fit in. They put others at ease. But we want to make trouble for Jack, so we start developing his character in a direction that will make this new situation torture for him.
We can make him shyer and more solitary than a turtle. But that’s not the only option. He can be socially awkward. He speaks too loud. He assumes that everybody shares his sense of humor. What else? As a prompt, think of five other ways that Jack can fail in a new social situation. Use one (or more) in a story.
Suppose we want to write an interior kind of story. Everything is fine in Jack’s life. He doesn’t have to go to fencing club. His family is wonderful; he has friends; his studies interest him. But we need a story and we want it to be Jack’s struggle with his inner demons. What can they be?
Well, let’s give him some faults. Maybe he’s a tad paranoid. He’s suspicious of his good fortune. There’s a worm in the apple of his life, and he’s going to find it, by gum! His friends and family, at first amused by his mistrust, begin to be annoyed, then angry.
Or he’s easily bored and deliberately sets out to shake things up, with unfortunate results.
I recently read William Styron’s Darkness Visible, his short and interesting memoir of his depression (high school and up). Styron’s descent into madness (his term) hit him hardest just as he was collecting a literary award, when everything was going splendidly.
So, as the next prompt, think of five more ways that a character with a great life can fall apart. Make a story out of one or more of them.
I’ll end by stating the obvious: Even if it’s hard to bring misery down on our complex, interesting, beloved characters, the solution is neither to spare them nor to make them not complex and not interesting.
Here are two more prompts:
∙ Marie is helping her best friend Peony get ready for a little party. Four friends are coming over. One is a boy Peony likes. Nothing has ever happened between them but she has hopes. The two girls are baking a cake for the occasion. Marie has only the best of intentions but she keeps creating disasters. Write the scene. Continue onto the arrival of the boy, and keep the trouble coming.
∙ In Perrault’s version of “Cinderella,” Cinderella forgives her stepsisters, and they marry lords. Rewrite the ending, and punish them. Be harsh.
Have fun, and save what you write!