When I started writing my latest book, my characters were murky – as they typically are. I had no clue what they looked like, what they were interested in, what made them tick, because they didn’t exist in my mind – yet.
Many writers will talk about how their protagonists and antagonists step forward to show themselves – sort of like a reveal. I say lucky them. I envy this because it doesn’t happen over here in “blank land” which is what I call the space I occupy as I begin a new project. For some writers on the very first day their butt hits the chair, they have a clear vision of what will happen – and who will make it happen. They are able to go about the business of writing merrily, what with their extensive charting of character personalities, background, traits. Or, maybe their ideas for characters simply stick in their heads, clinging as tightly as a two year old to a parent’s leg on the first day of pre-school, and screaming just as loud.
I’ve tried to shove my characters forward, using a template to jot down their physical appearance, personality traits, background story, and all that, like a rude jab in the back and…, it didn’t work for me. Nothing I wrote down seemed right. I spent days going back again and again, trying to fill in details about who the hell I was writing about. Yet, any foreknowledge of them was like trying to predict next years super bowl winner. I couldn’t do it. What worked was getting to know them, just like real people. I did this by writing about them every day. And as I did that, a little more was discovered, another little nuance to their way of thinking popped up, resulting in a different reaction than what I’d written the day before. Before long, I knew what seemed right or what didn’t about them. I knew them. I had their voices in my head – finally. (finally!) It took months to get to that point.
All of that brings me to the point of this post – and why my heroine won’t save herself.
Like all of my characters, my heroine, which might not be the right term for her considering what I’m about to say, was slow in letting me get to know her. In the story, she doesn’t perform feats of strength. She doesn’t develop an innate ability to stay ahead of the bad guy’s every step. She doesn’t somehow tragically fall into the well known trap like the characters who go down the dark steps and into the dark basement when they know a murderer could be lurking there. IMHO, this is so typical, and grossly overused. Maybe because it works. I guess, and that’s fine. I just didn’t want to do this.
To keep beating the drum about what I didn’t do…
She doesn’t magically know how to avoid danger by suddenly developing a sixth sense. She is suspicious of it, has gut feelings, but as the story plays out, when she lands in a dangerous situation (and she does), it’s not meant to be a descent into the basement sort of situation. (That’s my hope). She doesn’t know jack about self defense and she doesn’t suddenly develop the skills of a top notch sleuth, spinning her way through the clues and miraculously solving the mystery of her parent’s disappearance. She is a survivor, in the plainest and simplest of terms. She is, as I wanted her to be, a typical eighteen year old girl, who just graduated high school, with intentions of spending the summer figuring out what she wants to do. Until, she comes home and finds things are not as they should be.
But wait. Does this mean I made her boring? I don’t think so. Did I give her some unique skill set – you bet. Did I use that skill set to somehow thwart Mr. Bad Guy. Nope. I started to…and then I thought, no, wait that’s falling into the “cookie cutter” trap. What I tried to do was write real world actions and reactions – for all my characters, depending on how they developed over time.
The other techniques mentioned do work, I know they do and they’ve created some real blockbuster bestsellers. Whether the way I’ve done it works – no freaking idea. I’d like to think it will. In my case, I simply wanted to try to write about a situation that could happen to any of us, and I don’t know about you, but last time I checked, I still won’t go into my cellar after dark – even with a flashlight that works. I tried to think, if this happened to me, what would I do? Sure, she’s not sitting around filing her nails, waiting on the phone to ring, but neither is she taking over the investigation. She’s trying to live her life as best as she can, trying not to give up hope, trying to figure out if this person is good or bad, and really, why is her uncle make some of the decisions he’s making? It’s an upside down world for her, and she’s only too aware of it.
She’s smart, yet she’s not super-hero smart. She’s not going to save herself, and still, I really like her, the way Mark Darcy liked Bridget, of BRIDGET JONES DIARY…, “just as she is.”