Recently I’ve been working my way through my writer’s library. It’s something I do often, as I don’t trust memory any more than I do computers. Both have a tendency to screw up at the worst possible moment, and I suspect both were, at least in part, designed by Mr. Murphy to accommodate his laws.
As a result I tend to forget lessons read through once or twice, and commit the same faux pas I kicked myself in the rear for the last time I did them.
Here is one, taken from Alice Orr’s No More Rejections, which I think many Speculative Fiction writers tend to forget and do from time to time. I know I do, but not as often as I use to:
“If you always begin with character in situation rather than the other way around, You should never end up with a plot that has the feeling of being rigged to fit the author’s story needs. The editorial ear and eye are tuned to detecting that sort of thing. Your manuscript will come sailing back at you like a missile aimed point-blank at your publishing career. Never have your character behave in behest of your story needs rather than out of that character’s own nature and natural motivation… Plot must emerge from character. That’s the rule. Break it at your own peril.”
~Alice Orr; No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript That Sells
The only part I omitted in the above was her suggestion to return to the Writing Characters From the Inside Out exercise in her book. Since it’s too long to include in this blog, it’s not much help to you. But, perhaps I can explain a little.
Every so often we get so caught up in our plots, and their twists, that we have a habit of forgetting exactly how our characters would really behave in a given situation. However, since we really, really need our character to perform a certain action to move our plot forward, we jerk their strings like the puppet they are and make them do it anyway. Maybe it’s for the sake of prose, maybe it’s to get that marvelous description we worked soooo hard for down just right, maybe it’s because we can’t think of another way to get the story from point A to point B. Regardless of the reason, we trim the edges off that square peg and force it into the round hole, and consequently make the character to take a backseat to story.
Sounds a bit like we murdered the character to save the darling, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s because we have.
One of the biggest reasons we do this, besides trying to save our darlings, is that we often do not know our characters as well as we think we do. Oh sure, we know their vital statistics. We know their names, the color of their hair, the shape of their bodies, and probably where they were born, but we do not know their hearts. We do not know them as a living breathing person, (Even though they aren’t.), and if we don’t know them as a living entity, how can we expect the reader, agent, or editor to know them as such? If they don’t truly live for us, odds are they won’t for that group either. In short, if we treat them like a puppet, that is how the agent, editor, and worse, the reader will see them.
As hard as it is for us to get an empathy built up for our characters and convince the reader on some level that these are real people in real situations, I doubt we can achieve that if we bend them into any shape we like for the sake of story. Even if it is just a temporary thing to move the story forward.
For our stories to live, our characters must live and act in accordance with the nature we gave them. I think that is the gist of Alice’s advice. And that means all of our characters, not just the main ones.