The biggest lesson I had to learn about writing fiction is that the writer doesn’t write the story. Instead, these supposedly fictional people come alive at some point, and they take over. If the writer won’t let that happen, the story dies on the page.
It was Pearl Buck who made me want to learn to write fiction. I spent my childhood reading and re-reading her novels about China, and loving the grace with which a few words and a bit of dialog could evoke a whole exotic world. As an adult, I switched to reading everything that John Steinbeck, John Updike, and Anne Tyler wrote. All of them, like my childhood friend, seemed to know the trick of creating a whole enjoyable alternate reality. Interesting and complex people; moments that were insightful and sad and funny; the sight and smell and touch of a place all formed within my mind, complete, and from just a few words. What a gift they had! I didn’t realize that the reason their novels worked was that their characters were creating their stories and my writer heroes were especially good scribes.
The first novel I ever tried to write was a brief version of Letter From Freedom. The year was 1977, and I was conducting a thought-experiment that needed a story, so I made up a story. Rich older guy brings lovely young woman to his private island. He’s in love with her, but she falls in love with a native on the island and with the island’s culture so she stays there forever. Mine was a stupid, boring plot, and dead on the page. But then something odd happened.
Before I talk about this, I had better make clear the fact that I know these people are not real. I know I’m not channeling them from the dead; they don’t somehow live on other planets. They began as my creations, and they live in my mind. I am rational enough to understand that. But still, in some way that continues to confound me, fictional characters come alive and take over.
I’m used to this process now, and rely on it. But the first time it ever happened to me was when I tried to do a second draft of my thought-experiment novella, and I found that now the characters seemed to have developed a bit of independence. That older rich guy insisted on being younger. That beautiful young woman refused to be beautiful, and she talked like a wiseass. Not my idea. She fell in love with the rich guy, which was a nuisance; he was in the story just to get her to my thought-experiment island. I wanted her to end up with Jude! Jude was patterned on my old college boyfriend. She was patterned after me. This was my alternate reality, darn it, and I had the right to write it my way. So I forced my original story for a few more drafts, and then for a long time they were a love-triangle. For a very long time Jack was a bully. After all, he’s a rich guy, right? And Liz had to be pretty because a heroine is pretty.
It was the experience of writing a novel about historical people that taught me that characters drive the story. I have such reverence for Thomas Jefferson that even though My Thomas covers just twelve years, before I wrote a word of it I spent my every spare minute for a year studying everything Jefferson wrote before the age of forty. I carefully studied the history, too, all the events and the cultural details and the way they ate and dressed and lived. I studied slavery, which – like most things – seems to have evolved over centuries. By the time I had the history and the culture down and I had the genuine Jefferson in mind, when I put them together his Martha appeared and they lived out their story. I watched and listened and wrote it down.
My Thomas is the best thing I will ever write. When I read it again after twenty years in preparation for resuming my Letters From Love series, I was astonished to see how good it was. I had to tone down the Elizabethan English for reasons that become clear in Book Three of the series, but I was reluctant to do even that. My Thomas is good because I let the characters tell their story. And that was necessary not because they are historical people, but because the characters always own the story. It belongs to them. The novelist is their scribe.
There are many ramifications to this central fact. Here are a few of them:
1) Characters have back-stories. My wonderful editor insists that I write out the back-story of any character that seems to her not sufficiently fleshed, and I have found that to be a useful exercise. I also often find it surprising. Even if I haven’t consciously thought about a character’s back-story, when she asks me to write it I can flow pages of it. Somehow it already exists in my mind.
2) Characters have issues. I used to resist letting the ones I liked have any flaws at all, but if they didn’t have flaws there would be no story. And studying their flaws can be a great way to better understand a character. For example, Jack is a bit of a sissy. I thought for years that was because he was rich, but then in perhaps the tenth draft of what became Letter From Freedom he started telling Liz about his horrible childhood. Liz, too, began to make more sense when she shared the roots of her insecurities.
3) Characters are well-rounded. I used to consider Michael in Letter From Freedom to be the embodiment of evil, but when my editor asked for his backstory (editors call this a “bible”), we found him to be surprisingly nuanced. The only part of his good side that made it into the novel was his devotion to his widowed sister, but even that keeps him from being a caricature.
4) Characters will give you revelations. I have been around Jack and Liz for 35 years. You would think I know them, wouldn’t you? Yet I continue to learn new things about them. When I began to write Book Three, I notice that at seventy Jack is so security-conscious that this preoccupation is becoming pathological. So last month I did what I always do when I am trying to better understand a character: I asked him where that came from. Within a day the answer was in my mind, and it explained so much! I think it will surprise you, too.
5) Characters will embarrass you. Oh, will they embarrass you! I am a business attorney, happily married for 41 years, and a mother and grandmother. Writing a sex scene makes me blush, but the characters tell me to shut up and write. I used to try to leave out the sex scenes, or at least to tone them down a bit, but that never worked. And I’m going to have to write Book Four, the ancient history of Atlantica, which is full of wrongheaded violence and cruelty. I wince at what people will think of me, pulling all that out of my mind! I think a big reason why I have waited until my sixties to write full-time is that by now I have mostly stopped caring.
The key to writing fiction is to let the characters live it. You are their scribe. You watch and listen and write it down, then you clean up your prose and maybe do some rearranging. But the characters have to tell their own stories, or whatever you write won’t be worth its ink. That’s humbling, but ultimately it’s freeing, don’t you think?