blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

The character talks back

but what if they don’t?

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LisaRedfern via pixabay

Characters have a life of their own — or they should. Most writers know the feeling of writing something that seemed to come from the mouth of their creation, bypassing the writer’s mind entirely. Or breathlessly chasing words and images that play like a film going at double speed, hoping that fingers can keep up.

You could call it flow. You could call it the Muse. You could call it a lucky break.

Reading this piece from Louise Foerster reminded me of a time when my characters deserted me.

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Louise Foerster via Medium

My protagonist and antagonist were about to face off for the last time, but I didn’t know where and how. Protagonist didn’t want to do it, so naturally he was no help.
“It’s not fair,” Protag grumbled. “Didn’t I beat this guy already? Wasn’t that enough?”

The novel ground to a halt. In line with my less is more approach to worldbuilding, I don’t complete huge lists of traits for my characters. Much more important than their childhood pet or favourite colour, their personalities and choices are my focus. No short cuts there.

I was stuck.

Interview with the Bad Guy

Protag sulked. Antagonist stared out of the window, eyes fixed on a future only he could see. I decided to take a risk.
“Um, Antagonist? How are you going to win this once and for all? Why will you win?”
He turned his gaze towards me. “I am better and I am right.”

He explained himself fully and precisely, without emotion because that’s his character. It was the infamous villain’s monologue of so many movies and comic books, but before the battleground had even been decided.

I let him speak. I took notes (longhand works better for this kind of exercise.) About three-quarters of the way down the page, the solution came to me. I had to hustle him out of the room and get writing.

“I have more to say, if you would permit — ”
“Thanks so much for your time, but I have an appointment with my laptop. See you soon.”
He sounded disappointed. Not many people listened to him like that; they were all afraid of him. He couldn’t scare me and I’d heard enough.

Let the character speak

When you get stuck, interview a character. Interview the bad guy, the bad guy’s chief henchman, the protag’s best friend, the bartender who serves him whisky when things go wrong. Secondary characters often give a new perspective on the character that rounds him out. Of course, primary and secondary roles are all relative to where you’re standing, as the hero in your own tale.

Sometimes problem solving needs a different approach. The answer is within you. This is a way to coax it out of hiding.

There are secrets at the heart of every story; there is something that must be uncovered or discovered, both by the reader and by the characters.
Hannah Kent