Cutting Your Character To Fit The Tale
Once more I must come up with what my grandmother called “Excuses of chronic late payer.” I’m late again. Sorry. Last night I ran out of spoons so deeply that not only couldn’t I write the post, but I woke up almost twelve hours late today.
So, I feel like a bit of a fraud writing this post, because I don’t — like other authors have assured me they do. (No, it doesn’t mean that’s what they do. Come on. These people lie for a living.) — audition characters for a book and toss one out and pick another one if it doesn’t fit my story.
With me the process is more organic, and normally starts with a character showing up in my head and saying “hey, hey, hey, I want you to write my story.” (The hey, hey, hey is the mental pokes. Think of them poking my brain with a pencil tip as they say that.)
The character fits the story because it’s the character’s story. I mean, I don’t have a story about ballet told by a prize fighter, unless of course his girlfriend is a dancer.
And that’s when we start getting into the how to suit the character to the story. If you’re one of those writers who audition characters, the process is different.
First, make sure you know what the story is and where it’s going to take your character. Then make sure what characteristics your character must have so he can tell that story.
For instance, if your character is paraplegic and you’re telling the story of a dancing/gymnastics success, there better be science fiction and a miracle cure or mechanical exoskeleton involved. Otherwise you’re going to have to audition other characters.
I’m not saying you can’t have a painfully shy character become a superstar, but then you have to make sure that the emotional subplot fits that. If your plot is so packed up front that you don’t have room for a lot of emotional stuff, then don’t go there, just have your character be someone who copes with crowds and successes like a pro.
So when you’re auditioning the character, in that case, you need to have all the characteristics they should have already in place, and be ruthless about tossing out a character who doesn’t fit.
But what if, like me, you’re stuck with the character who showed up? Take A Few Good Men (please, it could use a few more sales!) — I had the vague idea in my head the character in that book was going to be a general, leading the battles, etc. This was somewhat of a problem. The people I’ve recruited to ask me with the dragon trilogy know I’m not of a military frame of mind. It’s not the battles that disturb me, it’s the protocols. I’m not a protocol sort of girl. I completely understand their necessity, I just can’t write them convincingly. I keep forgetting ranks, for instance.
Now, it is possible to do it for a limited time, and in a future arm. BUT as a general? No. I could do occasional battles, but I do lone forays better and easier. My expertise is amateur combat, street fighting and general free-lance mayhem and that my characters can do convincingly. BUT General? In an army?
Which is why Luce became a nominal military man, but he’s a desk pilot. He works in psychological warfare. He does engage in crazy sorties all on his own, because he’s Luce. Nat, otoh, whose experiences we get second hand is not only trained in war but is a strategically educated man, so he does the war part. I could handle the second hand in writing, because that’s how I get the war stories other people tell.
So, you can — and possibly should — split your character, or re-purpose a secondary character, if needed to get the story you need to.
Only, for the love of heaven, don’t have your character be a wimp, or be saved by Deus ex machina. (Or friend ex machina.)
Look, I’m saying because I did it. The character I got had such a horrible childhood he was a mess. This was expected and made sense. The problem is that he was broken. I.e., like a real person, the fight had gone out of him. His response to trouble was to roll in a ball and try to die.
Don’t do that. It might be authentic and full of pathos and stuff, but unless you’re telling one of those plotless stories, you won’t have a story, just a puddle.
So, think carefully of the character you have and how he fits the story, and if story or character can be changed to work.
Even if you get your story fully formed as I do, consider changing things, and incidents and bits. Because, you know… In the end, you lie for a living.
Now go lie.
Next week: All the tribal lays. Different plotting for different stories.