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.
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.