Character – the essence of soul
Writing can be a heartbreaker. You get your characters together and breathe life into them. Then you do the unthinkable – you throw them into situations that would be a true test of anyone’s moral fibre and spirit. You test them to breaking point and just when you think they can’t take any more you push them even further. This is a reflection of life. We all have those stories where something has happened to us and we tell someone and they say, ‘Oh my!’ ‘What did you do then?’ ‘How did you get through that?’ ‘How did you cope?’ This can take any form from a wardrobe malfunction to a plane crash.
It’s like watching a movie – there is a particular formula in most of the movies my husband watches. His usual requirements are one of the following (but if he gets them all wrapped up into one it’s like Christmas).
- Action – must have good car chase or people constantly dropping from helicopters into the jungle and shooting up everything in sight.
- Exploding heads from outer space or aliens busting out of peoples bodies
- Good versus evil – must contain action and great special effects.
I’ve noticed something about all these movies (if I can keep my eyes open long enough to see the ending) – the hero is always struggling near the end (shot or drugged or tied to a railway track) and you think he or she is never going to make it. How can they possibly get out of this alive! Of course they always do. And this gets back to my point about life. When something really tough happens to someone we want to know how they coped, escaped, lived through it. This is the beauty and the heartbreak of creating characters. The only difference is – you’re the cause of their catastrophe.
I’ll give you an example of character heartbreak. I hope this isn’t going to be a spoiler for anyone who plans to read The Eleventh Question when it’s published – but one of my main characters (Cayo) loses his best friend. I finished writing the scene late one evening and was called away unexpectedly. But I couldn’t get Cayo out of my mind. I’d left him in such a dark place, standing in the morgue looking at his friend. It was like a picture frozen in time. I could see his eyes and his stance and feel his heartache. Three days passed before I could get back to writing and all the while the poor guy was standing there waiting for me to ‘do something!’ I try not to let this happen but sometimes it’s unavoidable. If my characters are in a situation like this, I usually spend time getting them at least one step away before logging off for the night.
The other problem I have with characters is that they sometimes stow-away into my dreams. When I was writing Let Sleeping Gods Lie I found myself surrounded by the cast one night. I swear it was like one of those weird TV interventions. Two of the characters were not happy. One of them didn’t like her role and thought she should play a more pivotal part in the story. The other thought I was portraying him as too simple and he wanted me to make his character stronger, the entire cast agreed with them (no – I didn’t book myself into a psychiatrist). The next day I worked on the characters and tried to align them more with what they wanted to be. They never haunted my dreams again.
Putting everything you have into characters brings them to life on the page – it can be tough, but it’s the best thing any writer could ever hope for.