You never know when an epiphany is going to happen.
This week I sent off Mason and the Zombies to my agent and was left with this strange and foreign thing called FREE TIME. Giddier than Becca trapped inside a donut factory, I reveled in mindless emailing, Utube watching and scrabble games on Facebook.
Eventually though, that naggedy little prickle started up, the one telling me I should be doing something more productive than sending Booze mail or taking quizzes called Which Mental Disorder Are You? It was the voice of my next project. It had waited for a year and a half and wasn’t so keen on waiting any longer.
The project was an old manuscript–an old Nanowrimo manuscript. And we all know Nano novels are usually full of something, and I’m not talking words.
This novel was an experimental piece: new genre, new POV and most importantly for me, a new way of approaching characterization. This time, I didn’t think about what my MC should be doing as I wrote, I just let her have free reign. (My stories tend to be plot driven and I struggle with characters. I figured if I was going to mess around with something new, Nano was the time to do it.)
I shut down scrabble and opened my long term waiting folder (aptly named, ‘The Boneyard’). My emotions chugged up and down like Disney’s Tower of Terror. Was the MS as bad as I had thought when I’d blindly shoved it into a grave and run away screaming? After all, it’s not like corpses got better with age. Or, as was my eternal hope, did a stint in the dark place somehow cleanse it, rubbing away the weak characterization, the fumbling description, the laughable motivations?
It was time to see. I opened the file and started to read.
Soon, I found myself leaning closer to the screen. I’d stop, re-read a passage, a metaphor, a line of dialogue and think, did I write this? Some of it was so good, so genuine, I couldn’t believe it came from my fingertips. Best of all, my character didn’t lie flat on the paper. She had layers. She was interesting. She had a smart mouth, and she was real!
I went back to what I did differently and boom, cue the fireworks, shaft of light, the whole deal. It hit me like a brick sandwich: plotting and characters are two different elements and I’ve been approaching them as if they were the same.
As a plot-driven writer, I can plot and plan the story, I can work out the storyline twists…but I can’t plot out a character. People change and feel as a result of what happens around them, not because as the author I think they should feel X or Y. All along, I’ve been forcing my beliefs on my characters as to how they should act and feel as they are exposed to the changing events. I’ve been treating them like a plot.
This was a breakthrough for me. I understand now that I may know in advance how a story ends, but my characters must have the freedom to react and change without my preconceived nudging. Where they end up emotionally is a mystery that will unfold as I write—I shouldn’t force it.
Each day is another chance to learn, and today was no exception.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.