Anybody that knows me knows I can get a little obsessive when it comes to waiting for a new book to come out. Right now I’m waiting for Bitterblue, the follow up to Kristin Cashore’s young adult book, Graceling. I roam the internet, looking for news on release dates, covers, anything to hold me over until I can get my greedy hands on my own copy.
Recently I found myself sifting through blog entries about Kristin’s writing process, and specifically how she develops characters. Someone asked her if her characters ever pop up in her head while she’s not writing—if they give her advice or if they make their presence known in her everyday life. She said no, they stay where they belong, in her stories. I read this and nodded. Yes, that sounds right, I thought. My characters don’t really pop up in my head while I’m changing diapers or going grocery shopping. At least I couldn’t think of a time when they had.
Then something funny happened. I was watching a movie, completely engrossed in what was going on, when one of the characters made some passing comment on their luck finally changing. I snorted and immediately thought, “Ha! Tabby [a character I was writing at the time] would never wait around for her luck to change!” Then I thought, “Did that just happen? Did my character just pop up out of nowhere?” I figured it could have been a fluke. I’d been running through character building exercises that morning—it must have been carry-over from that.
It happened again a few days later. I was driving down the road, minding my own business when a truck shot around me and cut me off. There, at the forefront of my mind, was another one of my characters, shouting at me to speed up and honk until I got my point across. I smiled and shook my head. That wasn’t my reaction. (I’m a fairly levelheaded driver…most of the time.) It was my character’s reaction and he was not happy with the way I shrugged it off.
So, twice in one week, I found out that I was wrong. My characters do insert themselves into my thoughts. Probably always have, I just never noticed before. Now I don’t think I’m particularly crazy (unless I’ve been up for twenty-four hours straight with a sick baby, at which point all bets are off.) I’m pretty sure there have to be other writers out there that know what it’s like to think, “My character would never take that kind of crap!” Still, I think this realization has helped me in a couple of ways.
One, I’ve started writing more consistent characters. Now whenever I have decisions to make, I consult my characters. Invited to a dinner I don’t really want to attend? What would Character X do? What about Character Y? What does that say about them as people? Laptop crashed and I lost the last six days of work because I didn’t bother to back it up? (Cringe!) How would Character X react? Why didn’t he react like this instead? What do his friends think if he acts that way? For me, it’s become my strongest character-building tool.
It’s also shown me that I’m doing something right. Most of the writers I know are their own worst critics. They talk down to themselves, rip apart their own work, and go through periods where they are sure they’re wasting their time. I’m definitely one of those types. The trouble is, writers can’t rely on anyone else to pick them up when they feel that way. If I believe something is trash, nobody else is going to convince me it’s not. So it’s nice to know on those days when my plot is coming unraveled and my dialogue is gummy and off and my word count is getting out of hand, I don’t have to worry about whether I developed a realistic character. I know I have, because they’re usually there, laughing or crying or shouting at me to get over myself and finish the book already!At which point I usually take a deep breath and do exactly that. And you know, it’s made my life a lot easier. As a writer, anyway. Now if only I could convince my characters to vacuum and do the dishes for me, too. I'd be set for life.