It’s something of a mystery how fictional characters are created. Sometimes they appear in fully fleshed-out scenes, doing ridiculous or unspeakable things. Other times, it begins with a stray thought or line of dialogue, revealing both character and story in serialised tidbits.
Personally, I like to get to know my character before delving into their story. But often, I’ve found that regardless of how I envisioned his path, the character will go his own way, mapping out a story or subplot I never planned on.
When I started out, I was more of a pantser than a plotter anyway (which is writer’s lingo for ‘winging it’ vs. ‘getting your shit together’. No offence to the pantsers of the world.) My first book (a contemporary romantic suspense novel) changed as I wrote it, partly because I took sooooooo long to write it I actually grew up (debatable), and partly because I didn’t have the faintest idea of where I was going with the story.
The upside of this is that the story progressed organically. It became more focused on the underlying issues and emotions of its characters rather than the incredibly (read: embarrassingly) fluffy romance I’d initially started.
Of course, my main character changed too.
As I brought the two sisters of the book alive, the girl with the problems and the attitude (Brooke) became more interesting to me. I wanted to see where she’d take me, how she would deal with her inner turmoil, what made her the way she’d turned out to be when I saw her true colours in my mind’s eye.
When I first got a glimpse of who she really was, I was intrigued and appalled. In that order. That all too familiar inner critic zeroed in on everything wrong with my creation and began hacking it to pieces.
On the outside, Brooke is a beautiful young woman. Yet, underneath that, she is everything the human eye turns away from. She is a promiscuous, somewhat depressed, borderline alcoholic. Her introspective tendencies, the built-in need to suppress her emotions and shut out the world, is self-sabotaging, damaging herself and the relationships she has with those closest to her.
I loved her damaged soul immediately but ultimately, I was worried that the story was too bleak, the topic too sensitive.
Then I wrote it anyway.
And I’m glad I did.
The work of the Inner Critic
Too often, writers censor themselves; paranoid, self-conscious, crippled by self-doubt and the reaction of the reader. If I’d paid too much attention to my inner critic or the presumed criticisms of an easily-offended would-be reader, Brooke might never have been brought to life.
‘… if it were not written rather faster than the fastest typewriting, if I had stopped and took thought, it would never have been written at all.’ — Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary
Imagine a world of literature written by self-censoring writers too afraid to write the stories that matter. There would be no books about illness and death, or crime, or war, or *gasp* all-out taboo. More to the point, the memorable and often treasured characters of these books would cease to exist. Every flawed or troubled character would have been wiped from the page or never written at all. There would be no Esther Greenwood (The Bell Jar), Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye), Hazel Grace Lancaster (The Fault In Our Stars) or Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind). OR, there might have been a happier, unburdened, 2D version of them.
This thought doesn’t warm the cockles of my heart. Far from it. It reeks of false hope and lacks all truth because the real world is not all beauty. Side by side with the wonder that is our existence lies very real cruelty. A cruelty that breaks our fragile human bodies and spirits, while never quite extinguishing our innate sense of persistence and survival. This journey is a story in the making, and each of us, fictional or otherwise deal with strife in different ways. Not all characters are born to be Pollyanna.
As strange as it might seem to the non-writer folk, characters—on the whole—write themselves. I didn’t exactly plan to write a book with a central focus on the aftermath of abuse—but Brooke became so real to me that, at times, it was like she was whispering her story in my ear. For me, that is the magical part of writing.
So, if your current project demands a character whose story isn’t pretty, or easy to swallow, or whose actions or morals are a little (or a lot) askew—
Roll with it.
Embrace it. Enjoy it. Write the crap out of it.
Don’t let your inner critic determine what you write. Stay true to your story’s characters.