Like parents, writers have to learn to let go of their characters – give them lives, but let them live them.  If readers feel the writer’s presence, hiding and walking among his characters, they won’t trust him to create characters who live independently, outside of his control.  From the first breath a character takes and the first word she says,  that character should extend her thoughts, body language and most intimate conversations off the page, arms reaching out, saying, Come to mama.  Adult characters, young adult and child characters have this independent power to bring the reader into their lives, hold them there and keep them remembering them for a lifetime, but only if the writer knows them and trusts them to live beyond his control.

Think of a character, who became a person who became part of your life.  Thomas Covenant, Susie Salmon, Hagrid, Annie Wilkes and many more were conceived, born and bred in worlds that defined them, separate from their creators’ first sketches.  What made them memorable was their writers’ ability to get inside their heads, understand the full capacity of their power, then leave them to wield it.  Their writers let them act, react, feel, think, imagine, prophesy, and speak as unique individuals whose creators were never thought of once, not once, from the first page to the last.

Here are some characters locking readers into their worlds:

From Born in Utopia 

 

She let anger take hold.  Her first day of freedom was a lie.  She fumed from room to room in the empty condo, and knew where he’d be.  She found him at a waterfront café.  Rigidly, she stood beside him until he looked up.

He threw up his arms in innocence.  “What?”

Forcefully she pulled a chair away from the table and sat on its edge, straight-backed, and leaning across the table, put him in her line of fire.  “Coward!”

Patrons heard her branding him and turned away.

“I’ll order a coffee for you.”

“Don’t you dare leave this table.”

“Keep your voice down.”

“Why did you do it?”

“What?”

“Coward!  Just admit it!”

He looked away.

“Look…at…me!”

When he faced her he felt as estranged as he had before.  “I slipped up.  So what?”

“You left Gwened without any food.  She was hungry.  You ruined the whole trip.”

“And how did I do that?  I wasn’t even there.”

“We couldn’t get off the boat because of the dogs.  Gwened was frightened and hungry.  The dogs didn’t even know who I was.  Why didn’t they know me?  What did you do to them?”

“I just forgot to lock them up.”

“Liar!  You’ve changed Utopia.  It’s not safe.”

and from Into the Attic and Out:  Book One of Seeds

“Where’s everyone?”  He slid past her trying not to touch the chair that had the ghost in it.  The ghost she liked to sit on and put her arms around and talk to when he wasn’t listening.

“They’re all out.”  She moved sideways so he could get into the kitchen.  She watched his sullen face, watched him in the middle of the kitchen staring at the floor.  “Are you okay?  You look sad.  It’s Saturday.  You usually don’t have time to look sad.”

“I’m just thinking about things.”

“Uh huh.”  She waited for the “things” to bite into the cloud-like silence.  She wished she had kissed him when he came into the mud room, but he stopped kissing her when Jake died.  And he stopped walking the dog after that…didn’t say good-bye to it when they put it down a year later.

“Like what things?”

He found air in the bottom of his lungs and pushed it out – a long sigh, like a sullen breeze that matched his mood.  “I’m thinking about us.  We’re growing older.  Soon we’ll be moving away from one another.”

“Hey!”  She left the lap of the ghost on his favorite chair and moved to the kitchen table.  “Maddy’s eight.  I’m not planning to send her into forced labour for a while.”

He sat opposite her.

“I know you never talk about personal things and that…that numbs me.  It leaves me less maternal than I want to be, but whatever’s bugging you, I want to know about it.”  She knew it wasn’t only his fault.  She knew sometimes – too many times – she found more comfort alone with her plots and characters and alone with the strangers she brought home, than she did with her real kids.

“And I know I’m not always here, so you keep to small talk and school talk, but I’m slowly, very slowly finding my way back.”

“Forward I hope.”

“Okay.  Forward.”

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You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge one for yourself.”  Creating fictitious characters starts with dreaming them up, but what makes them memorable is how we hammer and forge their destiny.  Your character’s destiny is dependent on the adversity you confront him with,  and the power you assign him.  Lincoln stated, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”  Have a look at these characters and remember what they suffered and what power they accepted or refused:  Jay Gatsby, Sherlock Holmes, Holly Golightly, Lolita, Scarlett O’Hara, Scout Finch, Duddy Kravitz, Alexander MacDonald, Offred, Kurtz, Grendel, Yuri Shivago, Harry Potter.  And there are so many more memorable characters because they are not caricatures, but people.

Personality can open doors, but only character can keep them open.”  In order to keep your readers locked into your character’s destiny, they have to want to be part of their lives, like an unseen friend or enemy.  Their actions, reactions, and conversations have to make your character an irresistable spectator sport.  Here are some samples of character hammering and forging:

from Carry Me Home

Jean’s father, Mr. Scotty Lisgar, had been indicted on May 1, 1956, found guilty on September 10, 1956, and imprisoned in the Kingston Penn on September 12, 1956, five days after his daughter, Jean, returned to the Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute to teach chemistry, zoology, math, and a host of indictable language crimes committed by fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen year olds.  By November, the term had become insufferable for Jean and her aura of misplaced grace.

The year before her father’s arrest, she had been voted the most popular teacher and had role-modeled herself into the hearts of many hero-worshipers – students she had enfolded under her pedagogical wings and teachers who saw their youth reclaimed in Jean.   Male and female staff members fantasized about her, and now this – half smiles, stretched over half brains.  They had become automatons turning away from Jean, a pathetic, genetic mistake whom they had once called Sunshine because of her pink, luminous cheeks, fresh with young womanhood.

One word, ‘guilty’, had changed her whole life.   She resolved not to stay under those circumstances.  She resolved to resign and seek employment in a place where the blood of her father and mother-gone-loco, running in her veins, didn’t matter.  She handed in her resignation against the protests of the director of education and her principal who defended her, but could not persuade her to fight harder.

from Things to Come

Three months earlier when Jesse knew the Exodus Bill would pass like gold-laced pee, he made a decision to leave Carmen, his wife of twenty five years.  The wife-turned-politician became married to all that was phallic in the city and was devoted to keeping its virility clean and strong.  It was Carmen who spear-headed Salvation Exodus – the systemic purging of the homeless inToronto that had become stained with human soul loss.  Jesse shuddered at Carmen’s dominance, her climbing on him during his REM time or in the hot tub. He hated her power, her imagination, her rancid self-gratification.

He made preparations to escape Carmen’s philanthropic bullying.  He took a quilt his mother-in-law had made and pissed on it, empowering it with anti-social stink stains.  He stored it in a large IKEA bag in the garage, along with oversized clothes Carmen made him keep as a reminder of his former obesity.  He had smeared rotten food groups on them and partnered them with the quilt until Good Friday came, when he ran away and found a grassy patch beside Ajax and Cleo in the heart of downtown.  Faking sleep he let the evacuation team work its magic, assuring him softly that his life would soon be a whole lot better.  They labeled his bag, “Man with the tree of life quilt.”  He didn’t bring a keepsake, didn’t leave a note, and threw his ring down the toilet.  Anonymously he left Toronto for a sanctuary north by northwest.

Make everyone fall out of planes first, then explain who they were and why they were there in the first place.”  In the past posts, we’ve been looking at dramtic novel openings and taking readers beyond their control levels.  I read that, “fiction is about stuff that screwed up.”  In real life we try to avoid screw-ups, but a good read throws characters out of planes, off trains, and through window panes.  Be fearless in order to be nasty to people who can only haunt you fictitously – your characters.

First find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.”   I say find out what your hero wants, then don’t give it to him.  Conflict leads to challenges, to fights, to revelations, to more fights, even more revelations and to myriad emotional losses and gains.  Find out what your hero wants, then make him suffer for it.  If your hero suffers, your readers will too.  Then everyone gets to cry on one another’s shoulders.

Here’s an excerpt:

from The Artist

“I’ve been borrowing his strength and so have you.  How do you think you’ve survived your wife’s death?  Where do you think the power came from?”

A sudden terror seized him, as Sandra turned to the old man.  She placed both hands in Rigo’s.  “I’m ready.”
“You can’t do this!” pleaded Joseph.  “Don’t!”

Sandra faced Joseph, “If we don’t do this, he won’t make it home.  It’s time to pay back my loan.”  The artist’s old hands clasped firmly around hers.

Joseph had witnessed exchanges of power before, but never between a dead person who had been kept alive through the energy of a donor’s soul, and now was returning this energy to its rightful owner.  Sandra’s skin greyed; lacerations, clotted with blood, marked her body. Hair fell in clumps on the floor; teeth rotted; nails cracked; breath became foul.  Eyes rolled back, and hands, bruised and eaten by time fell away from the old man’s.

When it was over, he offered words of gratitude and kissed her forehead.  “Thank you.”  He had taken enough strength and purpose to make his return trip home.  He gathered the girl into his arms and rocked her and kissed her again.  “Thank you.  You meant so much to me.” He turned to Joseph. “We’re lucky if we get a second chance.  Her second chance was ten lifetimes of happiness – happiness most people don’t have for even one second.  She knew this day would come.  We’re wasting time.”

“We can’t leave her in here,” cautioned Grayson.

“She’ll be gone soon.”  She started to fade.  “You won’t find her when you come back.”

Jeffrey Archer, UK architect of mystery, builds conflict to last.  “Prose is architecture – not interior decoration,” says Hemingway.  Conflict, the skeleton of fiction, takes us into emotional labyrinths, like the ones Archer constructs from the first to last pages of his novels.  As humans we are conditioned not to hurt or deceive people, but as fiction writers, we have to throw ourselves along with our characters into hurtful, life-threatening nightmares and walk away as if nothing happened.  But does nothing happen?  Perhaps some writers are more committed to hurting and maiming – conflict to last.

“Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on you forehead.”  and  “Writing is not something to be ashamed of, but do it in private, and wash your hands afterwords.”

Here is some architectural conflict from Expatriate Bones:

Leonard stepped out of the shadows behind her and nodded at Peter who stood up and retreated to his seat.  “We have a guest.”

“Hello Jess.”

Turning around she recognized his voice.  “Leonard, what are you doing here?”
He smiled.  “I can’t say I’m here for some cheer, but I can make a toast.”  He found a tumbler and brandy on the sideboard and raised his glass in.  “To old enemies, bad deeds and sad families.”  He apologized for not sharing.  “I can’t have you getting warm and fuzzy when we have so many wicked things to say.”

“What’s going on?”

Leonard smiled smugly.  “History 101.”

“What?”  She looked at the Cardinal who had shrunk into his worn, leather cushion.

“I’m sorry.  He threatened to send someone to hurt you if I didn’t get you here.”

Her voice hardened as she confronted Leonard.  “I thought we exchanged something for my safety.”

“I want Petar to give you a crash course on European history from 1938 to 1950.”

“What’s the point?”

“You need to hear this, Jess.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Your family was there, in the middle of the carnage, the mania, the rapture.”

She turned to the Cardinal.  “You don’t have to say a thing.”

“We have to play his game.”

Leonard poured more brandy and brought his tumbler and gun to his chair.  “You need to hear the truth about who you are, who your grandparents were.  What kind of blood’s running through your veins.  The good Father, here, this pious Cardinal plays an important role.”

“I’m in the dark as much as you are.”

“You won’t be for long.  Both of you are my students.”

“Where do you want me to begin?”

“1940.  Borgotara, Italy.  The training camp under Ante Pavelic.  You were fifteen.  Don’t skip a single second.  Jess has a right to know.”

Expatriate Bones

From the Austin Del Rio Files

Montreal.  Winter.  2002.

The investigation of a murdered university student leads Detective Austin Del Rio of the Montreal PD into the crossfire of a bounty hunter’s revenge and a war crime cover-up.

Christine Duma, a med student at McGill University is stalked and murdered because of indicting evidence of an execution she saw.  Minutes before her murder she passes the evidence to Jess Salem, an unsuspecting passenger at a Metro station who thinks the Duma woman is street-broken and watches her terrified face disappear in the rush hour crowd.

Detective Del Rio’s investigation of the Duma murder leads him to Leonard Marsland, a war crimes bounty hunter who has spent a lifetime stripping the power behind sheep’s clothing from the men responsible for murdering his family.  Marsland has planned a serial extermination of three remaining targets on his list.

When Jess Salem becomes an innocent victim of Marsland’s vengeance she teams up with Detective Del Rio and together they fall into an intricate power play until all parties discover what Marsland thought he’d never find – a lost history of tell-tale bones still wearing trinkets and keepsakes of love in the catacombs of Notre Dame Basilica.

Expatriate Bones, a multi-layered mystery reminds us that every decade has its crimes of passion, its brutal revenge-seekers, its hidden corpses wanting history to remember them.  And we do.

Dramatic openings and plot beginnings can be ripe with conflict – edgy, reactive.   Conflict is synonymous with plot; plot is the series of explosive conflicts that escalate, get resolved, then reignite.

“Conflict bulds character; crisis defines it.”

“Conflict shocks us out of sheep-like passivity and sets us at contriving.”

Conflict is inevitable; combat is optional.”

The first paragraph can be edgy and reactive.  It can take the reader into an explosive situation on any level to shock both the character and the reader out of passivity.

1

The logger in army fatigues had claimed a patch of virgin forest by the Mattagami River, north of Timmins, that had not been harvested, and had no signs of intruders wandering into his illegal operation.  It was on the third day, when he felled a virgin pine and started delimbing her, that his chainsaw exposed a body tied to a branch and crushed under its weight.  It was a girl.  He had hauled away the wood from the previous two days, but on that third day, he left the harvest and the girl, like a mangled, Andean condor, wings snapped and entwined in the graveyard of bark.   When he covered his tracks and was safely away, he sent an anonymous letter to the police in Timmins.

Like real life, conflict is inevitable in fiction, and combat is not an option – it is necessary in fiction to harvest plot and character.  In the excerpt above, the dramatic opening (the discovery of a dead body) begins the conflict and demands a war.

Start your novel anyway you want to, but ask yourself if your opening absorbs you or hypnotizes you as if you were watching it in a movie theatre.  Here are two openings inspired by the illustration:  It was raining when she opened the door, and the dampness curled around and under the burnt remnants of the fire.  She had taken her chances with this one, but if the rain had been a day early, she would have missed…

It was unexpected – a singular bolt of red lightening, like a neon claw severing the landscape around him.  When he slipped under the cracked timber by the swollen river, he knew it had come for him. 

What is the dramatic impact of each of these openings?  How could they be more intense?

Plot talking with Meg

 

Hi Everyone,

So many friends and colleagues have started novels, but get frustrated with plot development.  Because I write suspense/mystery, I’m constantly thinking of danger – dangerous conflicts my characters get themselves into, but you don’t have to write mysteries to have the element of danger in your plots.

Whatever drives your characters beyond their comfort levels is dangerous to their security.   Danger – emotional, psychological, paranormal, physical, spiritual – drives your plot forward, backward, and sideways.

If your characters experience danger, whether it motivates them to become stronger or weaker, your readers will too.  That’s why we read:  to be thrown into that delicate balance between danger and release.  Danger presents a threat to security, which sparks intense negotiations, which lead to self-enlightenment or self-loathing, and the reader is along for the ride.

An agoraphobic weather reporter, opening his front door for the first time in two years can walk a reader into the face of danger just as horrifically as can an undertrained gladiator facing his first kill.

Think danger and your plot won’t let you go.

Plot talking with Meg