RELEASE YOUR CHARACTERS!
Being locked in a cell was a disconcerting experience for me. It was a mere twenty-four hour stretch in a police cell in suburban Mooroolbark, Melbourne for failing to pay a parking fine. Not exactly the crime of the century, I know. My cell was ten by fifteen with a stainless steel toilet, vinyl-covered mattress with no sheet and the light stayed on all night. By day I was allowed out into the covered yard, which was some thirty feet long by about ten feet wide, the only natural light came from a clear perspex hatch in the yard. Whilst I was secure in the knowledge that I’d be out by midday the next day, I felt claustrophobic. A week later I was sitting in the penthouse apartment of a friend of a friend in South Yarra looking out over the lights. The man pacing the floor looking miserably out over the city was also trapped inside a prison of his own making and I found myself reflecting on the grand irony of it all.
The journey from freedom to a police cell actually took a good twelve to eighteen months to happen and at any time I could have avoided a night in the cells by paying the fine. The man in the penthouse probably took a lot longer to get to the stage where he felt like jumping and I confess I never saw nor heard of him again to this day, but he too could have taken an alternative path. Neither of us were bound to our fate.
As writers we often doom our characters to a particular fate because as their creators we feel we know better than them. It’s a common scenario, we’ve all been there. I’ve got my game plan, a plot, characters, conflict and resolution and now I have to arrange my characters on the page to get them from the call to adventure through to denouement. Along the way some will be wounded, some will die, love matches will take place and other lovers will part and hopefully we readers will fall in love with your characters.
But what if one of your characters, let’s say the heroine, had decided that the main man, your alpha male wasn’t such a good catch after all? What if she took a step back and refused his advances. Would your novel founder? You’ve set it all up, arranged the characters and scenes and like actors, they’ll play their parts because you’re the director and there is something to be said for discipline and keeping a firm hand to the tiller, but what happens if you let go of the tiller?
My novel, The Deepening Dark, actually started out as The Calling, the protagonist was Murron but after a hundred thousand words I was shipwrecked and so I took a break from the book and emigrated to Scotland. A few years later I went back to The Calling and at chapter three I rediscovered a minor character, Rhianna, leading a revolt against an imperialist occupying army, the Bulkarans. She was fighting lizard men and had to be rescued by Murron’s father. I kept going back to that chapter and more out of curiosity began a new story with Rhianna as the main character. Along the way I kept Murron for a later book and lost the lizard men, they really were silly creatures.
When I got to chapter four I did the unthinkable. Rhianna had a son, Emdahl, a delightful little boy with blond hair and blue eyes, but in chapter four I had my Bulkarans kill him in front of Rhianna. I didn’t mean to kill him, I just wanted to see what she’d do and I discovered what happens when you just let go of your characters. I subjected that poor woman to the mockery of a false trial, fifty of her villagers were hanged in front her, they killed and butchered her horse, she was pack raped, beaten and taken out to the forest where she was to be torn to pieces by the general’s dogs at dusk. She’s rescued by elves and taken deep into the forest where for all intents and purposes she may as well be dead, her mind is stretched to breaking point while all about the Bulkarans and their goblin shock troops are ravaging the land. Now Rhianna had a reason to raise an army against the Bulkarans if she could recover in time and you’ll have to read the book if you want to know more.
This then is the challenge. I’ve read dozens of books over the last few years where I get to the end and wish the writer had’ve just let go of their characters, opened the cell door and allowed them a little freedom to make their own destiny. One of the more famous cinematic examples is Cal in Titanic. What if he hadn’t been such a nasty piece of work and actually loved Rose? She would have faced a moral dilemma and Jack would’ve been forced to work that much harder to turn her head.
Like real people going their merry way along predictable paths, your characters are also real, in your head at least. Certainly they’re based on real people and if you want to lift your novel above the thousands of others out there you might have to open the cell door and let them step outside for a bit. Where will they lead you? Letting go of your characters is risky, with some I’ve had to rein them in because like jealous actors they stole the limelight from my main character. In an early draft of a WIP, The Vessel, I let Harriet sleep with Elizabeth and while I discovered that Elizabeth might sleep with a woman, she wasn’t gay and definitely wouldn’t tie the knot with Harriet. I was left with a steamy love scene that was eventually taken out of the book because there was no point to it. Elizabeth actually became a much stronger character in the end. The point being that while the love scene might have gotten the blood racing, it ended up emasculating Elizabeth and steering the novel to a place none of my characters wanted to be.
It may be an experimental draft, a what if scenario, but if you feel your novel is floundering it may be just the thing you need to do. Throw your characters a lifeline and let them make other decisions. It has the effect of freeing your mind to consider other possibilities and while some might become dead ends, others might lead to a fresh new look on your WIP. You might find yourself sitting back with amazement. Did I just write that? What will she do now?
THE DEEPENING DARK
An exiled queen, a band of elves and the warrior cult known as the she bears are all that stands between General Bolksta and his conquest of Haydutia. Rhianna will need the luck of the gods if she is to hold back the tide of evil as an imperial army invades her country intent on turning Haydutia into just another province.
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