Never underestimate the power of giving kids a chance.
I know, that sounds like the plot of a Stephen King novel, right? Novelist stalked by his murderous main character who springs to life from the pages of his latest book! Oh wait, that was a Stephen King novel. Ha! However far-fetched that and other stories of a similar ilk may be, I’m here to attest to the essential reality of this peculiar notion, and to answer my own question with a resounding “Yes!”
Am I crazy? Perhaps. But hear me out first and then I’d love to get comments from fellow authors on this subject. And readers, too, since we write for you, after all. I’ve just spent the past year and a half living with the fictional characters in my massive, 721,440 word Children of the Knight trilogy, after having spent twenty years on and off (due to that pesky thorn in the side called work) developing the series. The first volume, Children of the Knight, is available from Amazon and the other usual suspects. Part II, Running Through a Dark Place, comes out in May or June, with the finale, And the Children Shall Lead, slated for fall. This story is one long book broken into three parts to make it less daunting (and less expensive to publish and buy – Ha!), so to say I’ve lived with these characters 24/7 is an understatement. And yes, as difficult as it may be for people to comprehend, those characters lived and breathed and directed their own dialogue and their own actions. I, as the author, merely wrote what they wanted me to write.
I know, crazy. Except it’s true. As the author, I very much created the plot and laid out the storyline and decided who my characters would be, both main and supporting. I knew how the trilogy would end before I even finished the first part. Did I know every single scene ahead of time? Of course not, though I did have an outline of the entire epic to work from. But here’s the rub – once I selected my characters and got to know those characters and then set them loose within my chosen plot, well, they just took over.
This series has a huge cast of characters to juggle. Most are teens or children, but there are also many adults of varying ages and from different walks of life. The teens are all unique, each with his or her own back-story and life experience. Thus, they don’t talk or act the same. I really hate any YA literature these days wherein the children (especially middle school age kids) talk and act like adults. It’s not only preposterous, but it perpetuates the notion that kids can think like adults, and that idiotic notion has slipped big-time into our so-called justice system, resulting in some states putting children as young as seven into adult court if those children commit a crime. Kids can mimic adults, yes, but they do not have the fully formed brains and rational thinking capacity of adults, and an author needs to keep that biological fact in mind when writing. But I digress. Sorry.
Anyway, once I got to know my characters, I pretty much let them run the show. I’d be at the gym on a treadmill or using the elliptical machine, and thinking of the next scene or scenes I was going to write when I got home. I’d picture in my mind what had to happen in the scene and which characters would be involved, then simply let it play out. And damn if it didn’t unspool in my mind like a movie! Not ever did I consciously compose a single line of dialogue. The kids talked and responded as they would have had the situation been real life, and all I had to do was either write it down at the gym or keep playing the scene back in my mind until I got home and then transcribe it. But the bottom line is, I let them tell me what they wanted to say. That’s not to suggest I didn’t change up some of the phrasing later on, but the essentials of what they said remained intact.
Readers ask how I came up with Lance’s little catch phrase, “Damn straight,” and I don’t have an answer. Or Reyna saying she couldn’t take orders from a boy younger and prettier than her, and then reusing that line to jibe Lance from time to time thereafter. Or Lance calling six-year-old Chris “little man” and everyone else gradually following suit. Or why Jenny tells Arthur, “That’s the great failure of our society–too many adults who want to act like children and too many who expect children to act like adults.” The list is endless and the only answer I can give is that those characters wanted to say those things that way at that moment, and so I let them.
Even while sitting at the computer, I’d type out a scene and let characters have their way with each other and respond to the circumstances in which they found themselves, then I’d go back later to reread what I had written and wonder where it all came from. Often, these scenes played out perfectly, the dialogue completely organic and exactly how Lance or Reyna or Arthur or Jack or Mark or Esteban or Jenny or Chris would have responded. It was definitely Stephen King-esque. Then, after concluding each book, I’d go back to revise, and more often than not laugh or feel choked up with emotion at what a character said or did, knowing that I’d written the scene, but never quite understanding how it came off so seamlessly, or why I couldn’t even remember actually composing it. Okay, I’m weird, but I’ve known that forever. Maybe that’s why I’m a writer. Ha!
What I also found interesting was what happened when I tried to get a character to do or say something he or she clearly didn’t want to do (in other words, would not do in real life.) Those scenes felt empty and wrong, though I didn’t always understand why at first. In Children of the Knight, there’s a scene I can’t describe because it would be a spoiler, but my main character, Lance, kept telling me he wanted to do something in the scene, and I kept resisting. In the first few drafts I fought to have it my way because I worried how readers might react to the scene. But Lance is nothing if not determined. Growing up on the streets had made him so. He kept insisting I let him do what he wanted, so I finally relented. The scene now feels very natural, real, and quite touching, and thus far no readers or reviewers have objected. See – the character always knows best.
In saying all of this, I don’t always see this same attention to character continuity and reality in books I read, even from bestselling authors. A character in these books will suddenly act out or make a decision completely counter to who he or she is, apparently to further the plot, and those anomalous behaviors always jump off the page at me and pull me right out of the story. At that point, the author has partially lost my allegiance. In most books, the plot, or storyline, if you prefer, must dictate the flow and pacing, but it should never force a character to act counter to himself or herself for the sake of a plot twist, or more commonly, a plot contrivance. Characters are supposed to evolve and change over time, depending on what events befall them, but those changes should be gradual and come across as organic and believable or the reality of the human being is lost. That’s my whole point. I could give specific examples from bestselling books, but I don’t want to dis a fellow author or the book editor, though it seems to me a good editor should have pointed out such an egregious faux pas to the writer and politely insist it be corrected. Oh well, the books are hits so what do I know, right?
If you’re a new writer you may be asking yourself, how do I get to know my characters? Well, how do we get to know anyone – by listening. Many writers start with Fan Fiction on the Internet, writing stories using characters they already know from some TV show or other. As a teen I often did that myself, though there was no Internet to post them on back in the day. Ha! But I knew those characters from watching them and, more importantly, listening to how they talked and interacted with others. The same principle holds true for characters of your own creation.
Of course, it’s important to have at least a basic outline for each of your characters, but you don’t need to know every aspect of his or her life up to the point of your story unless those aspects are relevant to your story. As with all of us, our past experiences – good and bad – inform our choices in the present and often dictate how we respond to certain people, events, or locations. Those are the details you need to think out ahead of time because they will determine how your character interacts with others in your book. Once you have these back stories in your head, including the level of education a character may or may not have had, then their manner of speech, as well as what they say or don’t say, becomes clearer to you with each passing scene. Run scenes in your head as I do, put your characters in place, and then just listen to how they talk, and note how they react to the given situation. Yeah, I guess writing is sort of like having a multiple personality disorder, but in a controlled way. You can’t allow yourself to become Stephen King’s alter ego in his book and have your main character possess you. But if you did, would that be called “method writing?” But I digress again. In any case, “method writing” is not recommended if your main character is a serial killer. Ha! But always listen to your characters, and more importantly, learn from them.
I personally spend an inordinate amount of time revising my books, especially the really long ones, because I want that character consistency and plot continuity that I’ve relished in books I love. I want everything I set up to pay off satisfactorily for the reader, even if that pay off comes in the second or third book, and the worst comment I feel I could ever receive would be that one of my characters acted in a way I never set up (or should I say, the character never set up.) Thankfully, I’ve not gotten such a comment yet, and hopefully never will. While readers might not be conscious of characters bending to suit the plot, it’s my gut feeling that the books they cherish don’t do this. We can get so caught up in plot that we overlook character inconsistencies, but when all the dots are connected and all the strands woven together seamlessly, a story will live in our hearts forever.
This quote from one reviewer on Goodreads helped solidify in my mind all the time I spend making sure each character runs his own show: “The very large supporting cast is quite uniquely developed. Everyone is developed uniquely to suit their role within the novel, without throwing in irrelevant details to bog down the reader. Also, their dialogue and dialects stay consistent throughout. Bowler never trips up on who speaks which way. It made it quite easy to differentiate between characters.” That’s such a fantastic validation, and encourages me to keep taking my time in getting the characters right.
So, any comments out there? Agree? Disagree? Feel free to weigh in, especially you writers out there. Some of you write ten books a year. Wish I could do that, but I’m too detail oriented and OCD when it comes to this issue of character and story continuity. I know I’ll never win any writing awards for poetic descriptions or flowery prose, but at least I strive to make my characters live and breathe and be at all times 100% real to the reader. To that end, I trust my characters to know themselves. I don’t argue with them any more. Lance taught me that. I let them be, and they don’t let me down.