A Writer’s Relationship With His Characters

I was on vacation the week of 18 September, and had no access to the internet. For that reason, there was no post then. I should perhaps have posted before leaving that I’d be going out of town and not to expect a post.

The next week, last week, the week of 25 September, I was just weak. Read lazy. No excuse for not writing then. Feel free to dispose of rotting vegetables in this direction.

That is not to say that I didn’t accomplish anything, though. While it’s true I did no writing, I did at least glance over the feedback from my initial Beta readers. I’ve got a lot of work to do polishing my WIP for the next round of reviews. I have to make a name change to the villain and one whole section needs to be re-written. That writing will resume in the next few days. I deliberately have not been working on the WIP because I just needed a break from the Captain and his crew.

Sometimes when you’re writing stories, no matter how much you love what or who you’re writing about, you just have to step back and take a little vacation. You do that or you risk burning out. That’s especially true when you’re constantly writing about the same people or place. It’s no different than real life, whatever that may be. Just as spending all your time with someone or in the same locale eventually drives you to wanting to get away for just a bit, the same thing happens with writing, or even your characters.

It’s not the same thing as stepping away for a bit to kind of forget what you just wrote so you can better scrutinize and tweak what you just wrote. That kind of suspension of writing is just part and parcel of the author’s workflow. In that case, you’re just trying to get a quick fresh look at your own work so you can hopefully be a little more impartial finding what you need to fix.

Instead, I’m talking about how your characters are every bit a part of your life as your family and friends. At times they are like your brother or sister: a part of your life you love, but dammit, you wish they’d just go away and leave you alone for a little bit. You love them, but sometimes you’d just like to kill them. Then, once they’re gone for a while, you look forward to getting back together.

My characters, the Captain and his crew, and the recurring side characters, are like that for me. Even when I’m not actively working on a story, I’m often thinking about them, wondering what they’re up to, as it were. That’s one way your characters grow: you develop them in your mind over time and that development finds its way into your writing.

When I first started writing about Pa’adhe, the Captain, and “the crew”, I only intended to write one or two short short stories and move on to some other writing. So, I imagined Pa’adhe, and being a bit of a sailor myself somewhat developed her before I started writing. Once I had her rough details, I knew I needed a captain and crew. Having a picture of her in mind, if not exact dimensions, I knew how much a crew was required.

OK, so now I need to write about the ship plus four people. This will be fun and a nice break from that novel. The captain, that’s who will be the main character, telling the story. Just a sailing story. That’s basically what ran through my mind when I wrote the first story, The Voyage to Caerl Headland. So, I wrote that, and didn’t have all that much detail worked out about the backgrounds of the characters. Oh, I had some ideas they were from different places in the world, I knew that Pa’adhe was a new ship design (what sailor doesn’t want his perfect ship?), and I had a rough idea of the race of at least two of the characters, Xinu and Scarle. I had no idea why they would be those races, but there it was.  Just a couple of seafaring stories to see if I can write them and I’ll go back to working on the novel. Just the captain telling a tale or two, that’s all.

Something happened after the second short story, A Matter of Trust. A couple of my Betas wanted more, not just more information about the characters, but more stories. I had an idea for a third story anyway, so why not? The thing is, though, that after that second story was put out there I was thinking more and more about these characters. I’d noticed, too, that they seemed to have taken on a life of their own: I’d started to write both stories with a general plot in place but things happened along the way. The plot changed, not too much in The Voyage to Caerl Headland, but more noticeably in A Matter of Trust.

The most obvious reason for that was, clearly, that I wasn’t a professional writer that stuck to a preconceived plot. I discovered later that I am a certain type of writer, a pantser, a writer that writes by the seat of his pants. By the end of The Pa’adhe I was no longer thinking of returning to working on the novel. My characters were beginning to get even more fleshed out in mind, and hopefully in the stories. Plus, I was curious to see how they’d make out in the next story I had in mind.

In short, they were becoming real.

I was thinking at odd moments about my characters, their backgrounds, what to throw at them next, and even, at the promptings of my Beta readers, what they looked like. I was starting to see them, not just as characters in a story, but as people in my life. No, not like Drop Dead Fred, Harvey the Rabbit, or Hobbes. I was thinking about them, fleshing them out and, interestingly enough, they seemed to be fleshing themselves out as well as I wrote more and more about them.

They even, over time, began to drive the stories I was writing. I soon learned that I could have as detailed an idea for a story as I wanted, but it was pretty much guaranteed that there would be some unexpected twists along the way. It was as if my characters were taking the story into their own hands and telling me what to write. I was beginning to realize that any character could cause something to change and I’d just have to accommodate that change in my writing somehow. By the end of this latest story, I understood I could dictate the opening, conflict point, and vaguely the ending but it was the characters that would be determining what happened along the way. I was just the author of their lives, along for the ride.

I suspect this happened because writing these stories about Pa’adhe and her crew is something I discovered I really enjoy, whether I have any kind of following or not. I want to see them succeed. I want to introduce them to people. I like them. They matter to me. Apparently, too, they matter to some of my readers.

From characters in two short stories meant to be a test, they have grown to be people with their own lives, beliefs, needs, and desires. I have whole backgrounds for all my main characters now, a far cry from when I first started writing about them. I have written things then had to change them because that’s not how they would have reacted.

And I know how it’s all going to end. But now, I’m wondering if these characters I’m coming to know are going to let me end it like that. We’ll see.

From mere words on a screen in front of my keyboard, my characters have become a part of my life. No longer disposable characters, even though I know the ultimate ends for some of them, they are people I am curious about, people I want to learn more about, people I want to let grow, to see if, in the end, they become what I foresee or someone completely different. I no longer think they’ll go gently into the twilight, never mind the night.

I think it’s going to be a long, fruitful journey.


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One Response to “A Writer’s Relationship With His Characters”

  1. Linda D. Says:

    Welcome to the mad love that is fiction writing, Bill!


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