Characters Take Over

Deadline status–The book is turned in, yay! I celebrated by spending all day Sunday sitting around and–gasp!–reading a romance novel and eating leftover Halloween candy. It was wonderful. Now onto the next project.

In the meantime, what with this just-finished book and various projects in various stages, I’ve been thinking a lot about characters. A few weeks ago I blogged about a book I was reading called Sixpence House by Paul Collins, where he talked about his family’s move to Hay-on-Wye, “the town of books.” In one chapter he talks about a trend in the 1920s for books supposedly “written” by a Puritan woman named Patience Worth via Ouija boards, but actually written by a very sneaky man named Casper Yost. Collins writes, “Yost rightly sensed that many people are partial to the notion that, like St. Louis housewives with Ouija boards, all writers are somehow mere vessels for Truth and Beauty when they compose. That we are not really in control. This is a variation on that twee little fable that writers like to pass off on gullible readers, that a character can develop a will of his own and “take over a book.” This makes writing sound supernatural and mysterious, like possession by the fairies. The reality tends to involve a spare room, a pirated copy of MS Word, and a table bought on sale at Target. A character can no more take over your novel than an eggplant and a jar of cumin can take over your kitchen.”

Well, of course this is technically true. I have never had a character barge into my writing space and snatch the keyboard out of my hands to write the story themselves. I wish they would. I also think it would be kinda fun if the fairies burst in and gave me some help here. (I also wish the eggplant and cumin would take over my kitchen so I don’t have to make dinner myself!). Yet there are definitely times when I feel I am not completely in charge of the story. As the creator of the tale, I can make the characters do what I want–in theory. In fact, if they don’t like where I am taking them they often make the story stall. It won’t move forward no matter what I try. They’re like stubborn toddlers who sit down in the middle of Target and start shrieking because they don’t like where things are going. Once I figure out how exactly I am going against their characters, how the story is being forced on them, things usually start moving again. The characters always take precedence over the plot–it’s their natures that make the plot move, at least for me. In that way they do take over the story, but I still have to be the one to do the hard work while they’re running around having adventures and falling in love.

Secondary characters do this, too. In the book I just finished, Duchess of Sin, there were 2 romances in addition to the main one of Anna Blacknall and Conlan McTeer. One was just a beginning–it continues in book 3, Lady of Seduction, but the other played out in its entirety here. And those two really, really wanted more time! I think Harlequin has the right idea with their “Undone” stories–they’re often connected to a longer book, and are a great way to give fascinating secondary characters their due. I can placate them with that, and they leave the main narrative alone. Same with characters who get their own full-length book. But what about when they are just meant to be supporting characters for this one story, and still insist on being scene-stealers???

When I’m working on a book, these characters do tend to run my life. I have conversations with them (out loud!) in the car, and forget to buy bread at the grocery store because I’m arguing with them about a plot twist. Then they are sent off to my editor’s desk and a new set of stubborn people move in. It’s wonderful, really.

Do your characters take over your life? What makes a memorable, realistic character to you? And are you as hungry for eggplant parmesan as I am???

(BTW, on Wednesday and again on Sunday I’ll be at Unusual Historicals, with excerpts and interviews on The Winter Queen, with one more chance to win a signed copy. And on the 5th I’ll be reading from TWQ on Blog Talk radio at 12 pm CST!)

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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