Thursday, August 03, 2006

Writers, Gods, and Atheists

In her blog last week Michael said “writers are like gods.” Which reminded me of something an author said at a recent conference:

“A writer can play God, but his characters will probably be Atheists.”

Apparently, the statement originally came from the theater world. Wherever it's from, I can relate. In the past six years, I’ve published four novels and about twelve short stories. My fifth novel is done, and I’m working on #6. You’d think by now it would get easier – that I’m finally getting the hang of it.

You’d be wrong. I find writing fiction to be the single greatest challenge I’ve ever taken on. I’ve always felt unequal to the task, and I’m plagued by all the usual insecurities:

-- I don’t know the first thing about writing
-- They’ll know I’m a fraud... they’ll see right through me
-- My prose is mundane, my plots stale
-- Who did I think I was kidding?

The only thing that sustained me were my characters. At least I was in control of something. I could make them exciting or boring, cynical or sweet, duplicitous or innocent. They would utter sharp dialog, romantic drivel, angry curses... whatever I wanted. After all, I brought them to life. I was their God.

In fact, I used to scoff at writers who claimed the words just started flowing when they sat down at their desks. That their characters took over and that they -- the writer -- were “just channeling.” Sure, I thought. Next you’re going to tell me you’re Shirley MacClaine.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to my third book being published.

I’m originally from Washington, DC, and my family kept asking me to set part of a novel in DC. Okay, I figured. In my third book, my protagonist (single mother and video producer Ellie Foreman) will go to DC, and while she’s there, something important will happen that will affect the rest of the book.

150 pages later, it was time to send Ellie to DC. Except I couldn’t. For the first time in my writing career, I came down with writers’ block. I couldn’t write. I started to do things like go to the grocery store, cook dinner, pay attention to my family. I even did laundry. But no writing.

After a few days, I realized something was happening. It took me another day or so to figure out what (I’m a slow learner): I was sending Ellie to DC, but she didn’t want to go. She had no reason to go. I was forcing her and she was rebelling. I was playing God -- she was clearly an Atheist.

Which was a major problem, since the rest of the book hinged on what happened to Ellie while she was in DC. If she didn’t go, I had only half a novel, half a plot. With a whole deadline looming.

Not good.

At that point, I did the only thing I could think of: I panicked and drank a lot of wine. A day or so later it occurred to me that supporting the local liquor store wasn’t going to solve my problem. So I suffered through a hangover, and once it subsided, I summoned up the courage to print out and read the first 150 pages.

And that’s when the miracle happened. I realized that I had already conceptualized the story -- without Ellie going to DC. All the characters were there – it was just that I didn’t see them. In my Godlike haste to send Ellie away, I’d overlooked the fact that I’d introduced a very credible villain in Chicago. He had a motive for killing, he told me how he'd done it, and he even told me where the climax would take place. He knew exactly what he was doing and why ... it's just that I was just the last to know. When I finally did realize it, it only took about 20 pages of rewriting to bring him into focus. He committed the crimes he'd set out to do, and Ellie stayed in Chicago to uncover them. The result was a much stronger book. In fact, An Image of Death is my favorite of the four novels.

I learned I have to get out of the way of my characters and trust that they won’t let me down. Still, it's not easy. "What do you mean, let them do what they want?" the control freak in me asks. That's when I try to remind myself that the round pegs I was cramming their square little heads into were choking them – making them do and say things that just weren’t convincing. And when characters aren’t credible or authentic or convincing, the story fails.

It helps to write back-stories for all my major characters. But it’s not foolproof. There are still times when a character will do something... well... out of character, and I realize afterwards I’ve done it again -- forcing them to do what I want, rather than what they would naturally do if left to their own devices. I also try to write what I call a “now-story” -- working through the POV of every character in a scene -- and develop the action based on each of their interests. In other words, I've learned to kinda let them take over. Er... channel them through my brain.

Spooky? Schizophrenic? Otherworldly? Maybe. And while I never thought I’d own up to it, it does help me write better fiction. Fiction that’s credible and authentic. Sometimes it's even fun! There’s only one problem… it’s getting very noisy inside my head.

Move over, Shirley.

43 comments:

Kevin Guilfoile said...

That's a great analysis of the character phenomenon, Libby. Before I'd written a novel I also used to laugh at writers who claimed they had no control over their characters. I always thought they were just trying to mystify what they do.

After I wrote my first (horrible, unpublished, never will be published) novel I realized there wasn't anything mystical about it at all. You have a story you plan to write and you have characters who will populate that story, but you don't actually get to know those characters until you start writing them and once you do, you often find they wouldn't do the things you had planned for them. So you can either manipulate the story so they do what you want (which some writers do) or you can say, as you did, if this character does A instead of B, how does that affect the rest of the story. As in your example, I think a novel is always better when you do the latter.

ab said...

Oh Libby, how I relate to that. But it is enjoyable, isn't it?

Only I never had hardly any control over my characters. First mystery, I decided it would NOT be a police novel. And I had the plot. But once I started writing, the characters I had did completely unexpected things and others just emerged out of nowhere, demanding attention. Now, into the 4th book in the series, I am stuck with a female police officer for a leading protagonist. And I like her. She won me over, step by step. We are doing this journey together.

And yesterday, out of the blue, a big, impressive latina pathologist came and sat down in a chair in a hotel room that is a crime scene. Turns out she had an affair ten years ago with the man I thought I was writing about. I had no idea. This is so interesting, I get to know a whole bunch of new people...

Khylan Seriphyn said...

Two words,"Thank You!"

Few things in your post sums up everything I've been struggling with regarding my stories.

Its so damn hard to write a story and even tougher to get a look in with a publisher.

I'm amazed there are bookstores.

Mike said...

I had a similar experience recently. I've had a story idea for several years that involves opening with disaster. Fleeing the scene to get into big adventure. I never got past the opening disaster. It was only about a couple weeks ago that I learned what might be the cause. They need to stay around the scene of the disaster. After all, why have the disaster otherwise. If there's one thing I learned from Crichton it's that characters don't have to move around all that much to have quite a lot going on.

Maryann Mercer said...

I killed someone off without meaning to. It just happened. I sat there and stared at the PC for five minutes.
Backstories are great, but I have to be careful. I tend to get too detailed and then box the character in. I'm still learning though. Even by the time I'm in print, I know I'll have my guys running circles around me.:o)
Thanks Libby...great post!

Julia Buckley said...

Libby--

As to insecurity, you're not alone. I think the only people more insecure than authors are stand-up comedians. :)

Michael Dymmoch said...

Libby,

Your post got me thinking about God. (I'm always thinking about characters.)

God is sort of--by definition--unknowable. God. But we give God all sorts of attributes--all knowing, all loving, all powerful, all just, etc. We usually ignore the fact that some of these attributes seem contradictory.

One of the claims made about God is that God gives us free-will. Writing's made me realize that if the claim is true, God cannot be all powerful. Or responsible for the bad things that happen--often attributed to "God's will." To quote one of my characters, "God give us free will. He stop the shit, He take away our free will. He won’t do that. It’s WE let this happen. Don’t blame God. He makes YOU responsible for you."

If we truely have free will, we're free to choose foolishly, or to choose to do wrong. Like our characters. If we create "real" characters, they have that same free will and they exercist that freedom to do what they will.

Which makes them what we (and our readers) find interesting.

Libby Hellmann said...

Hi,Michael...since you started the God conversation last week, I defer to your analysis of God's power vs free will. As the creator (or the "channeler", if you will) of characters, though, I think their exercise of free will needs to be consistent with what we already know about them.. or, if it's inconsistent, we (reader and author) need to understand why and accept it. Which can require something akin to blind faith that it will all work out when they take us someplace we didnt expect.

Mike... I love what you said about characters not having to move around a lot but still have a lot going on. How wise that is.

Kevin, some authors say they don't really know their characters and their story until they've finished the first draft. Then they go back and rewrite it according to what they've learned. I guess I do a little of that... but, given a deadline and the pressure to produce, it's kind of scary.

Sara Paretsky said...

Yes, Libby. I'm starting a chapter of LSD-A lethargic self-doubters (anonymous.) somehow the more time passes, the more self-doubt, even loathing, consumes me about my work. It's hard to follow the AA rubrik of "Act as if..." you believed in yourself and your prose.

Free will v control? It's hard to let go and write, to see where the underside of your mind takes you, takes the characters, but that's when the fun part of writing happens.

Anonymous said...

God (or, um, Libby) grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change those that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

If the character has substance, they have minds and wills of there own. Maybe "god" is a bit strong. At best we can be our character's parents, conceive them, nurture them, guide them. But as all real life parents know, that's about where it ends. We'd all like more control over our kid's actions, but just think about all the great works and inventions and art that would never have been created if all kids did exactly what their parents wanted.

And just think of all the plot twists, arcs, new characters, etc. writers would never see if they were in total control of their characters.

Bob Axelrod

johnny dangerous said...

I'm delighted when a character surprises me. The reader, I hope, will also be surprised and delighted.

Keith said...

I just clicked over to see what Chercover's up to and found this. For whatever it's worth, until my characters start doing things I didn't expect, I don't think I've done a good job creating them.

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