Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Lessons Learned

 This post from 2019 seemed like a good fit for this week, as I work my way through revisions on my latest novel, and perhaps learn a few new lessons.

You might think that an author is in charge of her characters and, indeed, that's how it usually starts out. But eventually, they begin to take on lives of their own and can become bossy or withdrawn or...whatever they've been written to be.

And then some.

The nice thing about this phenomenon is that it becomes a sort of two-way street. I retain creative control, but sometimes they teach me a thing or two -- or remind me of things I already know -- in the process.

Here are five of those things.
  • Change is always possible. So is redemption. The best characters grow over the course of a novel. Some grow into their potential, some mature and some show only a glimmer of hope (Jim). And, while they might not change a lot from the beginning of the book to the end, a reader needs to be able to hold out hope that change is possible even after the story ends.
  • Everyone responds differently. In my novels, Jim seems to elicit a consistent negative reaction from readers, but each of the women in the book responds to him in a different way. Angel sees the good in him that Charli wants to see and Marita learns to tolerate him for her daughter's sake. As a result, Jim responds differently to each of these characters (and his mother and his sisters) as well. He is the character my readers love to hate.
  • Relationships matter. I'm not much of a plotter. I tend to be more of a fan of putting my characters in a room and letting them drive the story, but those two things don't happen automatically. Writing dialogue that's a real reflection of the relationships and events is what makes this happen. Readers need to care about not just the people but how they connect (or don't) to one another and what's at stake because of it.
  • People make the story matter. Often, the stuff that happens in novels is not that far-removed from everyday life. People fall in love, go to work, take their kids to school, make dinner and go to bed -- alone or together. If we don't care about the people who are doing these things, all we have is a mundane succession of events. The same is true of life. When our homes and work places are filled with people who keep things interesting, even the mundane can be fascinating. It's my job as a writer to elevate the day-to-day stuff into the stuff that makes you want to turn the page.
  • Decisions are reversible. Maybe we can't go home again -- at least not in quite the same way -- but characters can revisit situations and decisions and places over and over again in an effort to get it right. Ask any soap opera fan -- happy marriages don't always stay happy and broken relationships don't always stay broken. Friends become enemies and vice versa and what seemed like an impossible idea is sometimes the solution to a problem when all the stars align. Because this is far less traumatic on the page than in real life, readers can watch it all play out from the safety and security of their most comfy chairs. 
These aren't things I didn't know (obviously), but playing with them in fiction helps remind me of all of the possibilities real life holds as well. Sure, it's a lot scarier to take a chance in real life than it is to watch a fictional character do so but if our characters can be brave, maybe we can be, too. 

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