How does a successful novelist invent compelling characters? Our guest blogger, Connecticut writer Maddie Dawson, author of the new novel The Stuff That Never Happened (Crown, August 3), offers us some insights:
By Maddie Dawson
I’ve been thinking a lot about characters lately, probably because some new people have recently moved into my head. Like summer tenants, they are rowdy and noisy, self-absorbed, taking the place over like they have full rights to everything. They’re waking me up in the middle of the night, co-opting my attention, forcing me to get out of bed and write down the bits of story they suddenly must tell—bits of story that they refused to part with earlier that day when I sat, fingers poised on the keyboard, waiting and begging.
Of course, even as I’m annoyed with them, I’m also enthralled by them—a little bit in love, actually.
Let’s face it: being at the beginning of a novel is one of the most exciting times to be a writer. I feel almost feverish with wanting to know everything I can about these new characters: what they wear, who their parents are, what they ate for lunch in fifth grade, who they took to the prom in high school, and mostly, what shenanigans they’re now caught up in, shenanigans that I know are going to be the basis of my new novel.
The bestselling romance writer Jennifer Crusie calls this phase the “sticky time,” because nearly everything you listen to, observe, or experience, sticks to your novel.
At the risk of sounding truly mentally ill here, let me just say it’s as though you’re hearing songs on the radio through your characters’ ears and not your own anymore. You feel inhabited somehow, as though you’re not alone in your own head; someone else is in there with you, commenting on the passing scene in a voice that may have nothing to do with your own sensibilities.
But how does this happen? Writers are always getting asked this question, usually by people who are narrowing their eyes and backing away, who perhaps have already punched in the “9” and the “1” on their cell phones, even as they’re waiting for the answer.
I used to just answer this glibly, that writing is the only socially acceptable form of schizophrenia—and yes, we are possessed by spirits, and yes, our characters do take over the stories from time to time. I would even give a little shrug to indicate that this is just one of the mysteries of writing—being willing to suspend disbelief and let ourselves be carried away.
But now, talking about this with fellow writers, I want to truly think about that process of creating new characters. Am I as passive in this process as I allow non-writers to think? Is it as easy as simply standing back while handing over the running of my brain to virtual strangers who paint pictures for me and tell me a story?
I don’t know how it is for other authors, but the first inkling I have that I’m about to write a novel is that a situation begins to take shape in my head. “There’s a woman,” I think, “and what if she was married to the same man for 27 years, and it’s an okay marriage, but suddenly she realizes that for years now, whenever anything has been wrong in her life, she’s found herself thinking and dreaming about the man she loved before?”
Trite, I answer myself back. (I almost always give myself the courtesy of an honest reply.)
“Yes, but what if this other man was somebody she had an affair with, and her husband knew?”
Hmmm. Tell me more.
“And what if they nearly broke up over this affair—it was early in their marriage—but they survived it, and now that the kids are grown, her husband is punishing her for this with his silence…?”
Okay. But will she meet up with the other guy again?
“Perhaps you should ask her that.”
Of course first I have to find her. Who is this woman who risked her early marriage, and why did she do it? And who is the husband, and the other man? Was she not in love with her husband, and if she wasn’t, why did she marry him? And what is it about marriage, anyway? What if it means different things to different people?
And—well, then I’m off. That’s how Annabelle McKay first came to me, explaining herself, torn between the loyalty she felt to her husband and kids, and her need to revisit the past. Every day she took shape, becoming more and more real to me, a deeper, more complex human being—silly sometimes, yet hurting even as she was trying to please everyone, caught up with remembering the past. Meeting this fictional woman was like meeting a new friend, and just as it happens when you’re meeting someone for the first time, they don’t spill all their secrets at once. Annabelle slowly spun out her story for me, quietly explaining and showing, using songs on the radio, lines in movies, overheard snippets of conversations, dreams, even elements of people I’d known before—all of which seemed to combine to create this new person.
I loved her, but what’s more, I also heard from, and loved, the men that she loved, both of them. They came to me, layered and complicated, neither man truly the “right” one. As Annabelle explored the meaning of her marriage and her past romantic fling, I was there with her, going through the shades of meaning, peeling back the layers of feeling, giving her the benefit of the doubt even when she was doing things all wrong.
It’s not an easy journey, writing a book. I’ve never been the kind of writer who sits down and outlines the entire story from beginning to end, scene by scene being laid out for me like Triptych from Triple-A. Instead, I think I’m something of a “pantser,” in that after the intial plot points are revealed to me, the journey I take is entirely dictated by what feels right at the time.
I liken it to starting out on a trip in California, heading toward New York—but having no idea of the exact route the journey will take. There will be detours and surprises, long stretches where I might not know the way (stretches that perhaps only serve to illuminate my characters for myself, and which ultimately won’t survive the revision of the book)—but eventually I’ll get to New York City, my characters and I traveling along together, keeping each other entertained on the way, even as we correct our course dozens, or hundreds, of times.
But are these characters responsible for the whole story? Do they truly dictate the way? No, of course not. There are times they want to take a wrong turn—the equivalent of getting off the interstate in Colorado and indulging in a little ski trip, and I have to say no. There are moments when a secondary character decides to try to hijack the book and make it a treatise on something else altogether, and I lay down the law. Once, Annabelle tried to engage some workers painting her house and get involved in promoting a house-painter’s romance with a young woman, and I had to frog-march her right back into her own story.
That’s the way it is. I’m in charge. Characters are there to illustrate something about human nature that I want to get across—something that I’m often not conscious of until I’m at the end of the book and then look at it in amazement and say, “Oh! So that’s what this book is about!”
And then—this is the most amazing part to me—after months or even years of living daily with these people, hearing everything they want to say, experiencing my own life through their eyes—they just pack up and go. I don’t hear from them again.
“Will you write a sequel? What happened next?” readers ask. I’m grateful for the question, truly I am…but the truth is that I don’t know. It depends on whether Annabelle and her men come back to me sometime. If they have anything else they think I might have missed out on, I’m sure they remember my address. They know where my head is, asleep on my pillow in the middle of the night, and I know from experience that they’re not too shy to wake me up and force me out of bed and to my keyboard.