Characters: When Do You Listen & When Do You Give a Little Push?
I’ve got this protagonist.
Well, actually, I don’t yet. She’s a good kid, she’s trying to be active, and, overall, I think she’s a likeable hero. The thing is, she isn’t coming onto the page–YET!–as I want her to.
She’s a little young. And a little naive. Which might be okay, if I were writing a middle-grade novel. Okay, the naive still wouldn’t be okay, not for me, but she could be a little less aware at the start of the story, a little less–yes, I’ll say the word: edgy. But I’m writing YA: She’s sixteen years old, and she’s not feeling like the sixteen-year-old I want to see on the page.
The key words in that last sentence are, I think, “I want.”
I have a vision for this story. It’s changed since I started the book. In my first first draft (yes, I consider that I’m on my second first draft, and you don’t want to argue with me), I pictured my hero, at the end of the book, really coming into her own–eyes being forced open and taking a huge step into growth and commitment. Then, when I realized I was working on two books, and that I had to pick the one I wanted to tell now, that hero changed for me. At least in my head. She became someone who was already more used to living a certain way, in a world that had constraints for her–constraints she’d learned to work around, constraints she’d developed a pattern to deal with. She became someone for whom–because of a big event at the start of those books–the constraints tightened, to the degree that she couldn’t work around them anymore, to the point where she and the constraints are headed for a big confrontation.
I think this hero is who my character, not just me, wants to be. But she hasn’t yet come through and told me that, or talked to me about how that makes her act, what choices it makes her face and take, what voice (and that’s the biggie) she should be telling her story in.
And, frankly, I’ve gotten a bit tired of waiting for her to do that. I think it’s time for me to do a little bit of forcing my vision onto the character.
This goes against a lot of what we hear writers talking about–those exploratory drafts in which the characters (hopefully, ideally) talk themselves onto the page in fits and spurts, those brainstorming sessions where we sit with a clean sheet of paper and listen to our characters, to what they have to say about themselves. It goes against that really hard thing to be: patient.
And yet. Maybe we have to give our characters some help. I swear, every now & then, I do hear the voice of this older, more aware hero in my head. I see her in glimpses–with a bit more attitude in her shoulders, a bit more tension in her face, a bit more of that here-we-go-again feeling in her heart. Maybe it’s not her. Maybe it’s that the work to bring her out, to let her out, is a new skill for me, one I haven’t yet developed as strongly as I need to. In my last book, the hero pretty much rolled onto the page–it was a lighter book, with humor, and my hero’s flip, impatient, cocky words came easily. Okay, maybe not easily, but compared to this book? Oh, yeah.
So maybe this is a craft thing for me. Maybe the hero of this WIP is in there, for real, just waiting for me to find the key and open things up. Maybe she wants me to push.
Well, I think she’s going to get it.
I’m working this week on letters to my protagonist and my antagonist, a la Susan Taylor Brown’s technique. I’m also going to just take some notes on attitude, on voice, on the “normal” world that both these characters are living in when the book opens. I don’t know how much of this will get into the draft I’m working on, but I’m hoping doing this work will at least get rid of the floundering feeling I’m having as I write –that sensation that, sure, I’m writing structured scenes with some setting and conflict, but that I have no clue what their base is, where they fit into the bigger world I’m creating.
How much do you listen and how much do you direct, or choreograph, your characters? When do they talk freely, and what do you do when they’re closed down and incommunicado? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!