The people who live in my head

I’m hoping to get back to semi-regular posting here, now that I’ve knocked a few gardening powerpoints out of the way, and I thought I’d start with some brief thoughts on characters and how they happen to me.

Writers get asked where they get their ideas, and I guess instead of saying “from a dark corner of my twisted brain” I should inquire what’s meant by ideas exactly. I usually assume it means things like premise and setting and plot, which all certainly have to come from somewhere, but really once I have the sketchy outline of a story it’s the characters that lead the way thenceforward. Now, I often find “the characters wanted me to do it” an iffy sort of excuse for writing choices – more on why this is said, in a moment – but deciding on a plot structure and then forcing characters into it just doesn’t work for me. Plot has to be somewhat flexible, like a cell membrane or an elastic waistband, to accommodate unexpected character-generated change. (I will leave those images to fester for a time, provoking visions of novels packing on the pounds or experiencing mitosis. Both of which have happened to mine. But I swear to you it’s for the best.)

Let’s face it: fictional characters are a weird phenomenon. They are simultaneously inhabitants of a writer’s brain, created by imagination and traceable to one person’s experience, and – if the writer’s done her job right – real people, or something close to, separable from their creator. Sometimes, by a cool trick of psychology, they appear to be thinking for themselves, making their own decisions that are contrary to what the writer had planned for them. I assure you that this isn’t true, not really; it’s one part of the brain saying to the other “well, that was stupid; you need to do it this way” and letting a fictional person take the rap for it. They aren’t real people. They merely (we hope) give the illusion of acting like it.

(And you can shut up, George. You’re a figment and you know it.)

(It is usually George making the snarky comments, by the way. I joke that the other characters got together and elected him as spokesperson, but probably he’s just got the biggest mouth.)

So where do characters come from? Some writers base their creations entirely or in part on people they know, which leads to a crawly “you’re not putting me in a book, are you?” feeling experienced by friends and family. Ethics and creepiness aside, that just doesn’t work for me. I do, on rare occasions, recognize in a character I’ve already written some resemblance to a real person, but that’s never my intent. Nor are my characters me, which is something else that writers get pounced on for a lot. Though I did discover after a while that a great way to get a hook into a character is to figure out what we’ve got in common and work outwards from there. For example, Camilla Armitage’s first entrance, slamming her way into the house dripping wet and rhapsodizing about the weather, does strike a familiar note when I think of my own 20-year-old self and her relationship to rainy days. I’m very unlike Camilla in other ways, but I can isolate that little nugget of understanding and build difference around it, and I do that with all of them at some point in the process. So I guess if you took all my characters and put them in a specially-designed sieve and shook them hard enough to turn most of their hard-won self-identity into chaff, you’d end up with me. But that hardly seems worth it.

I will admit here that I like my characters. I think there’s a fashion among certain novelists to write the most unlikeable characters possible and to make it clear that no affection exists between creator and creation, and… wow, it just sounds so tiring. I want to enjoy the time I spend with these people, and mostly I do. Liking them does not mean I think they are entirely virtuous, that they have no faults or that I’d trust them with my life or my wallet or my cat, or even to water my plants properly, but I try to make them fun to write (and, I hope, to read). Aside from my recurring characters, of whom I am very fond (in that way that I could comfortably think of as motherly if I didn’t know so much about their sex lives), there are always a few standouts per book who provide extra entertainment. In Time for Tea, I note in particular Richard Halsey and Mrs. Armitage, who make me forget whatever slogging effort I went to in their development, and recall instead words flowing effortlessly and delightfully from the fingers. Maybe it really happened that way. In any case, I salute them, because I don’t think either of them is safe to hug.

Then there are the characters who surprise me. I should note that in general I don’t feel I “know” a character until I start writing them (singular nondiscriminatory them, okay?); I’m not one to make extensive character notes about schooling and food preferences and favorite color before those things come up naturally in the course of a story, and actually putting down scenes and dialogue is the only way I can fill in the outline of a person. In the course of thinking out a plot, I do come up with placeholder characters for various functions, but it’s not till they actually step onto the stage/page that I can make them real. However, it’s not like I don’t think about them ahead of time, and sometimes preconceptions occur, and then… well, and then there’s Annabelle Harrison, who had a stake in the TFT plot long before she had a personality, and then arrived to deliver what was going to be a few necessary lines, and blew me away. Because she was, suddenly and all at once, not only a completely-formed human being but one who upturned expectations, very much as if she’d gotten tired of waiting in the wings and walked on to deliver a showstopper performance. I doubt this is how it comes off in the book, since she is quiet and polite, but it’s how it felt in my head. And again: one part of the brain telling another what it did wrong. But that’s not how it seems at the time.

There’s another more enduring example of a character who ambushed me, coming up in Time and Fevers. I’ll be interested to see if anyone guesses who it is. And so that you can, I need to get working on final editing and formatting! Still looking at a late April publication date, but there’s lots of work to do in the meanwhile.

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