Characters

Writing. One of the most therapeutic and yet, simultaneously, traumatic exercises of the human mind, particularly in the matter of characters. Like they say: no pain, no gain. It’s banging your head against a brick wall until the bricks give way. It’s jumping out of your bathtub and running naked through the streets of Athens. It’s trying to pull open a “PUSH” door. It’s Athene springing from Zeus’ head. It’s singing and vomiting and parkour and drowning and Zumba and flying and childbirth all in one. 

Let me explain.

Some girls get teary-eyed over characters they read about in books, or watch on film. They become attached to the characters; they learn the characters’ personalities, their likes and dislikes, their quirks, their habits, their favorite colors and the reasons they play violins at three in the morning.

Playing a violin at three in the morning can be an endearing habit to, say, a girl who has a crush on that character. But how does that character’s mother feel about that? Or, for that matter, his flatmate?

The writer not only learns and knows these quirks and habits, but creates them, develops them, gifts the characters with them — or, worse, discovers them in a character. Yes, everything people say about characters developing their own personalities is true. Many characters require a lot of development: the writer has to sit down and “manually” decide a character’s height, age, eye color, temperament, birthday, favorite book, favorite piece of jewellery, favorite childhood toy. These characters do just fine in life; they’re the ones who settle down and marry and have 2.1 children and watch football and work for insurance companies. Some characters, however, just walk into a story; sometimes, they saunter in casually as a background character, then become more and more important, until they finally overwhelm the entire plot. Others barge through the front door, tracking in mud all over the Persian rug your aunt brought you back from her last trip, dumping their luggage in the middle of the floor, shouting or singing or whistling or blowing their noses, doing their very best to act like they belong there. 

Yes, Basil, I’m talking about you. 

— but you don’t need to meet him. Not yet. He needs to grow up a little. Sigh. If only that were possible … 

So, yes. Some characters are born, some are discovered, some just gatecrash whatever project the writer is working on at the moment. And when a writer creates or discovers or is gatecrashed by a character, nine times out of ten, that character sticks. Like bubblegum to the underside of a sixth-grade desk. 

And you learn to love them. And you become attached to them (because, as we all know, when you name something, you become attached to it). You begin to understand the violin sessions. You might lose sleep over them, but at the same time, you know your nights would echo with emptiness without them.

 

You take the character with you, where ever you go, whatever you do. If he behaves himself, you introduce him to your best friends — shyly, cautiously, hoping he make a good impression (“What do you think? Is he too snobby? But he’s really nice, usually …promise!”). You start thinking more and more about him, until you catch yourself and realize you’re obsessed. If he were a real person, it would be called love, but of course, you can’t tell your great-aunt you’re engaged to a figment of your imagination. Sigh. 

And then suddenly, he dies on you.

I mean, think about it. Your favourite character in your favourite TV show on your favourite TV channel pulls a Bunbury and dies (yes, I’m talking about *him.*). Fans shake their fists and blame the director, or the writer, or the actor, but whatchya gonna do? The character is dead. So you pull out your emergency stash of jelly beans/Dove chocolates/jammy dodgers (or what’s left of it — it’s been an emotional season) and curl up in a down comforter and re-watch every episode. Twice.

Writers can’t do that. 

We stare at the screen, that horrid little space bar thingy incessantly blinking — the last inch of space before the fall off the cliff into the oblivion of character Hades. He dies. Wait, what do you mean? That’s not supposed to happen! You shout at the computer; you get up and stomp off to the kitchen for more tea; you come back, and he’s still lying there, the pool of ink slowly congealing beneath his still, cyber-frozen body. 

Fans cannot understand. There is no way to bring back a character. When his time has come, he is gone. When he decides, that decision is final. No amount of re-writing can undo the sight, the image, the vision of the house in flames, the family in funereal black, the broken-hearted heroine cradling the clay-cold head. 

***

Ok, so it doesn’t happen to every character. Somehow it doesn’t happen to female characters, or dull characters, or evil characters. Is it just me? Is it just a hero thing? This post wasn’t supposed to go all melodramatic, but there you go. Heroes die. Characters die. And after a short time of ultimate misery, the writer slaps herself and opens up that Exel file again. Did she remember to add a column for gas expenses? Drat it. 

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13 thoughts on “Characters

  1. blueroses says:

    Sadness! I feel your pain.
    By the way, I would love to meet the character who burst through, leaving mud on the rug and sneezing. 🙂

    • And so you shall, my dear. When that character introduces himself, I will be sure to introduce him to you. But as of yet, he’s still scraping mud off his shoes, so it might be a while. Some characters take their time to tell me about themselves, while others seem to spew information right and left.

  2. jubilare says:

    “Others barge through the front door, tracking in mud all over the Persian rug your aunt brought you back from her last trip, dumping their luggage in the middle of the floor, shouting or singing or whistling or blowing their noses, doing their very best to act like they belong there. ”

    Oy… I can relate. There’s always at least one, isn’t there? Mine showed up one night when I was in college, took over my brain for about three hours and gave me, in bullet-points, his entire life, start to finish. …he’s still around and tends to comment on things I read, or watch, or listen to, the opinionated little monster.

    Anyway… in talking to other writers, I’ve learned that, while we tend to have experiences in common, every writer has a slightly different way of interacting with their characters. Most of mine are dead soon after they arrive, in that I know how they die and (more or less) when. They stick around, anyway, even after I’ve written their deaths. It helps ease the pain, somewhat, to know that while they have left the plain of their story, they are still with me. If I ever have any fans, though, they may hate me. 😉

  3. jubilare says:

    Fire is soothing, clarifying and more than a little mesmerizing to me. I build fires when I need the world to fade into the background, thus freeing up my mind for other things. 🙂

    I do most of my brainstorming in my head. I don’t brainstorm well in print. There are exceptions, of course. I find bouncing ideas and problems off the heads of friends (writer-friends and non-writer friends) very helpful. Whether I agree with what they have to say or not, their input helps give me traction to work through the tough questions.
    The really big brainstorming, though, I leave to the subconscious, as we’ve mentioned elsewhere. Thus being tempted to write whilst driving. 😛

  4. Ditto here, I don’t brainstorm well on paper or on the computer. A lot has to happen “upstairs” before I ever touch the computer or paper (which do you prefer: pen-and-paper or word processor?).

    I just re-read your 9 April post, and I’m still curious as to how your characters arrive already dead! Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Do you like knowing their ends, rather than having to figure them out later (or have them surprise you later)? Is a character’s death his most striking feature (like how some characters come hunchbacked or angry or policemen) or is it just another factoid about him (like he went to this university or is short or has a girlfriend)? Or are you a murder-mystery writer with a penchant for multiple murders? 🙂

    • jubilare says:

      I love the feeling of pen on paper, but the flexibility of a word-processor. Lately, I’ve done most of my writing in Evernote, which helps me organize as well as access my writing easily, but I also have notebooks running out my ears and I use them constantly.

      Hah! I write “fantasy,” I suppose, though that word feels terribly limiting (as ironic as that may sound). As to whether or not knowing most characters’ deaths early on is a good or a bad thing, I don’t really know. It’s just how things work for me, and always have. I didn’t realize it was unusual until I started talking to other authors.
      A character’s death is usually closer to a factoid than a defining characteristic, I guess. As to liking or not liking knowing, I think I like knowing (as I am frustrated, a little, by the few characters whose deaths are still up in the air). I know all characters are going to die eventually, in story or out of story. It’s the journey of their lives that interests me, and that reveals itself in patches as I write.

  5. I understand: it’s hard to subject your entire body of writing to one generic (in the sense of pertaining to a genre, not “unspecified”) label. I’ve dabbled in just about every genre, I think … excepting the modern horror/paranormal/whatnot spectrum. Nah. Not for me. But fantasy, murder, historical fiction, legend, fairy tale … so many options! All such fun!

    I like how you can see character deaths from the start. You bring up a good point; for a character to be realistic, he must be human (well, ok, except in the case of fantasy!) and, being human, suffer (enjoy?) mortality. All the classic romances (well, ok, most — I hate to generalize — and, ok, they’re technically not romances, in the literary sense of the word … but you know what I mean!) take us through the suspense and entertainment of love and courtship, but we never (/rarely) see anything that happens after the climactic moment at the altar. I’ve always wanted to write a story about newlyweds, in the style of a traditional romance, just out of writer’s curiosity, I suppose. We shall see. Maybe after I finish these other twenty writing projects floating around in my mind …

    • jubilare says:

      You are much more versatile than I. 🙂 My characters, safely (or not so safely, as the case may be) nestled in their universe, have been with me since I was very small, and everything else has grown out of that. I had stories in my head many years before I ever thought I might want to write them down.

      Yes, exactly. Even my non-human characters are mortal. Technically, even the “Grim Reaper” in my stories is mortal, bless her. 🙂 Also, because of my faith (I’m Christian, but you probably know that as you’ve seen my blog) I consider all of my characters immortal, as well. Death is the end of one part of their story, only. This may also explain why my characters tend to stick around postmortem.
      Another reason I see the deaths of most of my characters along the way is that I see stories in big-picture and I have to “zoom in” to narrow the perspective. For instance, I may see several generations of families in an area and how they interlock with the overall story of their region or world. Does that make sense?

      Mm, that is a good point about romances. I’m a resistant romantic. Some of my favorite ones are between already-married couples. It’s a little old, and very odd, but I actually wrote a short piece for a friend a few years ago that involves an unconventional snapshot of a romance. If you’re curious: http://www.elfwood.com/~cryptarch/Fall-of-a-Sparrow-%28For-Emily%29.3378808.html Most of the things in that gallery are at least five years old.

      Finding time to write all the ideas that come is a perpetual problem, but you should try!

      • As you say, death is not the end of all 🙂 Thank God for that! And how fascinatingly you to portray the Other Side of the Door of Death in “Sparrow!” (Sorry, I’m a bit Germanic when it comes to capitals!) I have always been intrigued with death — not morbidly, I hope, but from a religious, realistic point of view (incidentally … or not … I’m Catholic, so, as for you, it’s the sequel to life!). I’ve been playing around with an idea for a short story about the Apocalypse and Christ’s Second Coming. I’m just fascinated by the idea of lying on my back in a coffin and awakening to the blast of trumpets, then climbing out through the piles of dirt, and coming to stand face to face with my guardian angel. That sound weird, doesn’t it? Hmmm …

        I love how you work with multiple generations of characters! Sort of clan-nish, eh? That certainly gives the story more depth.

        You say your characters have been with you since you were small. That is so interesting! I don’t think I have any childhood stories or characters that I have kept up with … Can you identify any books that were particularly influential in your story-making?

  6. jubilare says:

    Aye, thank God!
    So long as you aren’t typing in all caps, we’re good. I can handle reasonable amounts of capitals. 😉
    The “other side” in Sparrow’s little story is specific to her kind, and part of an ongoing journey. That is to say that, if I were to write other stories on the other side of Death’s Door, as you put it, they could be very different. I have no plans for doing so any time soon, though. I’m more interested in my characters lives.
    In order to stop spamming your post, I will move my answers to the rest of your reply to e-mail. 🙂

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