Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Hole 5: Let Your Characters Rebel

Staging the Rebellion

Many years ago, when I was working on, Nissa's Placethe sequel to my first published novel The Year of the Sawdust Man, my mother asked me how the writing was going and I replied, "Well, it's bizarre, no one is doing what I expect them to do and I don't know what's going to happen next."  She paused for a moment, then asked, "How can that happen if you're creating the characters?  Can't you just tell them what to do?"

I sure could, but that would be far less interesting to me and to the readers who will eventually pick up the book once it's published. If we authors try to control our characters, we become a literary puppeter, so I'm suggesting we cut the strings and allow our characters to become "A real boy!"

We can't breathe true life into our characters, but we can create characters that are life-like. I'll never forget the reader who told me, "I was afraid to put the book down because I thought the characters would so something while I was away."  This remark revealed how real the charactrers felt to her as she read.

In order to create the sense of realism that tells readers the characters have a life of their own, you have to allow those characters to rebel against your own conception of them.  How can this happen if you're the one creativing them?  It's all psychology, my dear Watson, psychology.

Knowing How Your Mind Works

How many times have you meet somone and thought, there's someting about this person that is setting off my radar, but I can't put my finger on it?  Sometime later, it clicks, a gesture the person made, an offhand comment, something clues you in that this person wasn't telling the truth, was harboring a secret crush, or was tyring to hide a fear. You noticed the tell, but didn't realize what it meant. 

Sometimes we have a conversation with someone that mystifies us until we dream about it and that person's actions in the dream clarify what was really going on behind the scenes when you spoke to the person last.  

Just like the screen in the throne room of the Wizard of Oz, you have to look behind the screen and see what's really going on in the pyche of the person you're dealing with and that's also true of writing. The more you can get inside your character's head, the more real that character can become.

Delving into your charater's psyche consciously can make your character development too analyzitical or stiff and you're rarely surprised by what the characters do. On the other hand, if you do explore the charater subconsciously, both you and your readers may be quite surprised by your characters' behavior.

Letting Your Characters Surprise You

And just how do you create characters without thinking about it? Act your way through it. Allow yourself to imagine being that character and act your way through what s/he would do next. Don't think ahead, react to the situation you've fictionally created and act your way out of it.

To do this well, it helps to steep yourself in character development before you start writing. Study human psychology--in books, people watching, personal interactions, films, books.  Make people your homework. Notice clothing, gestures, dialogue, and all the other little things that show us who a person is and how they interact with others. Let all this material seep into your subconscious.

I also do a lot of character exercises--what restaurant would a character choose? What would s/he order? How does she eat? What does he drink? Any food s/he would pick off his/her plate?

It can also be helpful to make a take a mental walk through the character's world. A trip through the house to hear the sounds, listen to the family go about their day, walk through the neighborhood, visit the school, go to a friends house.  I realize all of these things will rise out of what you know and think, but when you can take these walks without thinking about what you're creating, the better you become at randomly generating details and building character profiles you can draw on as your write.

Test it For Truth

Once you've allowed your characters to "do their thing," go back and test the behavior for "truth."  Often when we allow our subconscious to drive the bus, it can venture into neighborhoods populated by our own issues rather than the things that the character is facing. If you're in a power struggle with your mother-in-law, she may show up as the bosy neighbor, or your battle with her may creep into your character's conflict with his homeroom teacher. If that happens, you want to make sure that the emotions remain true to the central focus of the story and the lives and background of the characters.  

Trim the Trival

Writing form the subconscious can be quite freeing and that can sometimes lead to an excess of material. You can hit the zone and just keep on writing even after the scene your working on has resolved.  As you reread, make sure the material you've created fits well into the plot and character development of your story. If you're just riffing, you may want to trim out the trival.  Take out the things you included because you were having fun with the characters, but they don't really move the plot or character development forward.

Follow Where Your Characters Lead You

On the other hand, occassionally, characters can create a new direction in the plot you weren't expecting. They do or say something while you're letting them lead you that changes everything. Dont be afraid to follow them.   We often work things out in our subconscious well before we realize and/or accept it consciously. This leads us to do or say things that surprise us. We ask, "Why did I just do that?" If you examine things further, you realize your inner realizations lead to external actions. The same can be true for your characters. You've created situations and movitvations your characters are propelled by, but you don't fully understanding on a conscious level. If you act your way out of the situation, you'll often realize that the changes can be quite revealing and inspiring.  

So allow your characters to rebel a little and they may carve out new terrirotry for you that is as exciting and insightful to you as it will hopefully one day be for your readers. 

Thank you so much for reaiding my blog. I would love to hear your insights into character rebellion. Please share them here!  The first five people to comment will be entered into a drawing to win prizes. 

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