by Christine Kling
These days you’ll find my boat TALESPINNER docked in a small marina and me down below spending less time enjoying life on the water and more time doing the “butt in chair” work of getting a novel written. Why is it that no matter how many books you’ve written, they never seem to get any easier?
There’s this cliché of a question that always pops up around writers: “Where do you get your ideas?” The funny thing about it is that is makes it sound as though there are only one or two ideas in a book. In fact, books are made up of hundreds of thousands of ideas and decisions that authors must make. In the past few months, I’ve been working at putting together the cast of characters for my new novel and while characters are made up of ideas – for example, one must imagine what they look like, where they live, what their families are like, how old they are, etc. – yet to really breathe that magical life into them, characters must be something more than just a bunch of ideas thrown together.
When deep in the throes of writing a book, everything around you becomes research in one way or another. Nearly every detail of every day is seen through this prism of the story you are imagining 24/7 in the back of your mind. You pluck the ideas and details from the world around you. I went to the movies the other night, and I stole a character’s name from the credits on the screen. I saw a dog at the dog park and decided that was the breed one of my characters should own. These details might stick or they might get jettisoned along the way as each character becomes a person.
This afternoon, I received an email from a reader in Seebring, Florida. She wrote, “I must tell you, I almost yelled at Seychelle when I knew she would get into trouble. The woman surely had a hard head. She should have been a police detective instead of a tug boat captain. Keep writing, I love Seychelle.” What I love about this email is the implied knowledge that Seychelle does things that are reckless, but this reader still loves her. The reader understands and believes that Sey would behave that way. (Believe me, one reason I love that note so much is that not all my readers see it that way!)
To me, some of the most amazing characters are those who should not be believable when you try to explain them in your own words. Take for example, Lisbeth Salander from Steig Larssen’s novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Try it. See, she’s this Goth girl who looks like she’s about 14, but is really in her 20’s, is brilliant and has a photographic memory, is a world-class hacker, and she can fight and win against men twice her size. What? you say. Who’s gonna believe that? Yet I and several million others adore this character. There is a mountain of crazy contradictions packed into that tiny person but she leaps to life on the page and grabs the reader’s emotions. You CARE about what is going to happen to Lisbeth. I am in awe of the incredible talent it took to make that woman who should not be believable – spring to life as a real person.
A couple of days ago, I was in the car driving and I was listening to Terry Gross interview Dustin Hoffman on NPR. Hoffman said something that has been resonating with me for the past few days. He was talking about his early days in acting, before he became famous, and explaining why he didn’t do well at auditions. He had studied acting extensively, so he explained that for him, “… there was a craft and an art to acting, and one of the conditions or the precepts were that when you first start, you don’t do anything. You let – see what happens. And the character takes time to build, just like in painting or in writing. And so at an audition, they want the performance.”
It was that phrase, the character takes time to build, that has been echoing in my mind ever since.
What struck me was that the audition he was talking about is very similar to a first draft of a scene. This is what makes the first third of a book so difficult for me. Every new character who first walks onto the page is auditioning for his part. He or she hasn’t been properly built yet, and what makes you, as the writer, crazy is that as he gets more fully built in future scenes, you might discover he’s acting all wrong in what you wrote three chapters ago.
As writers we want to create amazing, surprising characters like Lisbeth or Hannibal Lechter. We want to write stories where characters discover things that twist the story and surprise the reader in a way that plays fair with the reader and makes perfect sense at the end of the book. I love this statement by the thriller writer, Patricia Highsmith. “It is a cheap trick merely to surprise and shock the reader, especially at the expense of logic. And a lack of invention on the writers’ part cannot be covered up by sensational action and clever prose. It is also a kind of laziness to write the obvious, which does not entertain, really. The idea is an unexpected turn of events, reasonably consistent with the characters of the protagonists. Stretch the reader’s credulity, his sense of logic, to the utmost — it is quite elastic — but don’t break it. In this way, you will write something new, surprising and entertaining both to yourself and the reader.” A character like Salander puts the elasticity to the test – and she survives – Lisbeth always survives.
Hemingway once said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.”
I don’t think readers understand how difficult that is to come up with characters (people) who will shock and surprise the reader – yet be absolutely believable in so doing. It’s not always something we writers can do on cue – or on deadline. If you merely throw together a bunch of random quirks and hope that will make your characters interesting, no amount of artificial respiration will bring them to life. There is some indefinable moment when the imagined molecules align just right and the magic occurs.
The question most writers would want answered, is how do you summon up that magic?
ChristineShare on Facebook