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Crossing Over: Characters Choosing Writers

May 4, 2009

There is a common belief that writers choose characters which will best facilitate the telling of their stories.  But I believe it is the other way around. I believe fictional characters seek out writers to share their story with. I don’t see why it should be any different to a real life personality having their biography put down on paper by a third party – the only real difference being the plane of reality on which the character/personality resides (but more of that next week!) Any writer who has been cornered by a character will know what I am talking about. Henry James in the preface of his novel The Portrait of a Lady shares an encounter he had with Russian writer Ivan Turgenev on the subject of characters.  James writes:

It began for him (Turgenev) almost always with the vision of some person or persons, who hovered before him, soliciting him, as the active or passive figure, interesting him and appealing to him, just as they were and what they were.  He saw them, in that fashion, as dispensibles, for them subject to the chances, the complications of existence and saw them vividly …

The visions which Turgenev speaks of come in a number of different guises. Like many other writers, I often dream of my characters.  Stephenie Meyer is famously quoted as saying Edward Cullen came to her in a dream from which Twilight was born.  I love to wake and find I’ve been gifted characters in my sleep – the unnamed characters in Demon Lover were both plucked straight from a dream (interestingly enough they never showed their true faces or shared their real names), as were the characters KaRu and Shet from Blue Melissae, my NaNo 09 project. For me, the dreamscape is a proflic and successful social networking space for me as a writer. But characters make themselves known in other ways.

I sometimes hear them in my head (though it is more often the case I over hear a new character in dialogue with an existing character) or in the case of Sam from (story name) I felt him through Liam Finn’s song Wise Man.  I’d been carrying the feeling around for months before the Fiction Friday prompt came that allowed his story to flow through.  Other characters find you by sending their real life equivalents into your sphere – as Annie and I discovered when we came across the dreadlocked illusionist Jordon in Rick’s Bar in Fortitude Valley Friday night. Then there are the bold characters who just turn up on the page and refuse to leave.

There is in infamous moment in the writing lives of Annie, Paul and I where we can pinpoint the moment a character chose how his story would be told. I remember Annie cc-ing me in on an email to Paul saying she’d just done something terrible.  Paul’s character Captain Juan had just appeared with the flick of a finely tailored cloak at the end of her Fiction Friday story … and despite her best efforts she could not get him to leave.  From this one encounter The Astonishing Adventures of Captain Juan were born.

I honestly believe that after several years of being the brunt of comedic torture for Paul’s family and the hero of some far flung adventures, the Captain wanted his real story told.  Rather than disappear and take his story to another writer, Juan found a writer whose attention he could garner, but who would ensure Paul still remained integral to the writing of the story. While writing NaNo both years I’ve had characters stumble onto the page form seemingly no where, but who were made to be there.  I love Henry James description of the supporting cast for Isabel Archer, the main character in his The Portrait of a Lady.

I seem to myself to have waked up one morning in possession of them .. the definite array of contributions to Isabel Archer’s history … It was as if they had simply, by impulse of their own, floated into my ken, and all in response to my primary question: well what will she do?”  Their answer seemed to be that if I would trust them they would show me.  They were like the groups of attendants and entertainers who come down by train when people in the country give a party.

And I just love the visual of all the characters of a book, for expediency’s sake, the motely cast of  Captain Juan, spilling onto a plane, a bus, a horse drawn dray or dog drawn sled, making their way from their side of the creative void into ours.

It’s a case of faith, trust and surrender – that’s what I believe James was saying – that’s all our characters ask of us. But I think sometimes as writers we let our egos, fears or beliefs  come between us and the story we’ve been gifted. Or we just don’t listen. We forget the story belongs to our characters if we will just let them share it. But maybe, sometimes, just like us, the characters who cross over into our world show themselves to be as just as fallible as us writers and choose the wrong person to share their story with.

It is my own personal opinion Edward Cullen gave his story to the wrong writer, someone who could not do the complexities of the story justice.  To me there is no denying at all he specifically choose Meyer, who is reported as saying he came to her as a fully developed character in a dream. Yet, I can’t help but wonder who he may have been and the depth and beauty of the story woven around him had Edward Cullen chosen a different writer to put down his story.

While I like to pay out on Stephenie Meyer, I’m only pointing the finger because I’m happy to throw stones in my own glass house, albeit a much smaller and less classy glass house than Meyer’s!

I had a character share her story with me during the writing of one a 3am Epiphany exercise –  a young woman tortured by the fact her mother could have no more children after she birth the first time. It came to me clearly – a little girl blowing out the candles on her birthday cake across successive years, wishing for a little brother or sister. What I did then was inexcusable.

I assumed she was the manifestation of my Demon Lover character – whose background story I had been foraging around for. I forced her into the shoes of another character as I tried to write script version of the short story. Not surprisingly it was a dismal failure – like in real life, a square peg cannot fit into a round hole.  All the while I struggled to make her fit, I ignored her protests and the banshee screams of the other character who had just been usurped. Not one of my best moments as a writer. Both characters have since been committed to my Green Room and hopefully they’ll forgive me when the time goes in to retrieve them.

This is why as writers we are charged with the responsibility of honouring the characters who come to us – surrendering to them and their story – even when we are morally challenged by what they show us. In addition, we need to ensure we produce quality work and enlist the help of a support cast on both sides of the creative void – secondary characters who allow your characters story to be best told and a switched on editor who can best sculpt the story once it is down.

After all – how would you feel if  entrusted your life story to someone wrote it overusing adjectives and adverbs, poorly structured it, bungled the dialogue, relied on an inappropriate writing style or even worse – dumbed it down, told it from a point of view other than your own, assembled a support cast who had never been part of your life or who totally ignored your story and wrote what they thought was best?

Jodi Cleghorn is glad her partner Dave is an avid reader of high brow literature, who believes her rather far fetched concepts about writing and characterisation, finding examples from noteable authors to support her crazy ideas. Thanks darling! You can find more of Jodi’s musings Writing With Passionate Abandon.
  1. May 4, 2009 2:57 am

    I agree with your comments about characters and characterizations. If you develop your characters fully, then they will jump from the page and take on their own life. Then you are really writing about their experiences and being led by them, rather than wondering what they would do, you already know and the writing almost writes itself, as it were.

    I made a comment about characters and character names on my blog:

    So I do find characterization of paramount importance in writing.

  2. May 4, 2009 9:54 am

    Thanks for this delightful entry Jodi. I can see a whole heap more on this subject just – a brewing!
    I am thankful that Paul took my email with the grace he did and have been blessed everyday that the two of you continue to write the good captains story with me.

    Just think – where would we all be if I had ignored the captains swish of his jacket?

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