Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Why I Need to Shut Up and Let My Characters Speak for Themselves

I recently started a new mystery series about a family caregiver who opens a small inn. Mind you, I have several other manuscripts in various stages of development, but I wanted to do this story because I thought it could be fun to write and fun to read. A family caregiver? An inn? Sounds boring? You haven't met this gang.

I was almost 20,000 words into this manuscript when I had to stop and focus on business matters. When I came back to it, I found myself bogged down by the first and second chapters. Plenty of action on the first couple of pages, and lots more later on, but that chunk of the story just halted me in my tracks. What was the problem? Way too much information and not enough adventure. Yawn.

I've puzzled over it for a few days now, managing to cut a few lines here and a few lines there. Not enough, though. It was a struggle to read those pages. I believe in the story. I think it's interesting, different, and I have some twists and turns to toss in there, to shake things up. But one thing I couldn't shake was this dry description of why Scarlet Wilson became an innkeeper.

It's not like she's a snore of a character. If anything, she's pretty feisty and funny. What's more, she and her older brother, Bur, still have that old, good-natured sibling rivalry firing things up between them. And when the heartthrob from her past, now a widower, comes for a visit, the sparks still fly. Imagine your older brother giving you advice about love, especially when he's been married and divorced a few times. How annoying is that?

Scarlet's hardly a perfect person. When it comes to love, she's sometimes out of her depth -- she left it a little too long and she was a little too comfortable settling for a boyfriend who wasn't really worthy of her. When she gets a second chance to hook up with the high school hunk, will she invent trouble to avoid real commitment? Will she let that hard outer shell scare him away? (How many women insist that they just can't find the right guy, when the right guy is standing right in front of them? You can't appreciate a good guy when you're too busy avoiding eye contact.) For all her bluster, Scarlet sometimes lacks confidence. At other times, she's overly confident. What's it going to take for her to focus on what she really wants, so she can go after it? Or should I say him?

I woke up this morning thinking, "What I really need to do is stop telling readers what they should know about the family and just let the family do the telling." What's the point of having characters if an author doesn't let them be themselves, warts and all?

I always strive to let the people in my books grow as the story unfolds. As the pressure grows, people have to trust each other, lean on each other, work together. That really helps to drive the plot. Each character puts his or her own mark on it. I sometimes find myself learning through the fictional eyes of my heroes. Would I have done this or that if I were in those shoes? Maybe not. And yet I know that people make different choices in life. It's what makes us interesting as human beings.

I once read a book on how to create great fiction, written by a wise author whose name totally escapes me (it's a shame, really -- wonderful advice for an aspiring author like me). He recommended heaping trouble on the main characters, until they just about reached their breaking point. Catastrophe after catastrophe would mold each of them and bring out the best and the worst in them. In some ways, readers get the benefit of learning through the mistakes of favorite characters without having to repeat those mistakes in real life. But it's the lessons of courage that often inspire us the most. Is there anything sweeter than a flawed character pulling himself or herself together in time to save the day? Ordinary people doing extraordinary things, finding that affirmation that life and love really do matter?

And so now, as I head back to my story, I know that I will have to be truer to my characters. I will cut and snip sentences here and there, taking out what doesn't work. I will turn over the story to the characters involved and take my place on the sidelines, where I belong. I am determined to making this story work, not because I have an ego the size of Texas, but because I want to know what happens to Scarlet, Bur, and the others. And I'm looking forward to sharing the Four Acorns Inn with you, readers. It's sure to be a doozy of a tale.

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