Friday, April 09, 2010

When Characters Take Over

It seemed to be an isolated incident when John Logan, one of the background characters in Past Imperfect, then called Out of the Past, followed me into my dreams. He nagged me for days before I finally gave in and listened. I had to get some sleep or I wouldn't be able to write anything. So I listened and he changed the course of the story and my writing life. He was right.

John Logan had taken on a life of his own and, even though it trespassed into my life outside writing, I am glad he nagged me until I paid attention. The novel that resulted was much better than the one planned in my head and the ending surprised even me. I was just along for the ride.

I'd heard about characters talking back and refusing to be pushed around and maneuvered like pieces on a chess board, but I didn't really believe it until John Logan. From the moment I listened to him, writing changed for me. It's also likely why I write more nonfiction than fiction; I get to write what I want and the characters don't make cameo appearances in my dreams. Not usually.

A lot of my writing is done in my head before I put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper. Scenes, dialogue and exposition play out in my mind, the words arranging and re-arranging into more pleasing shapes until, like the ice Kai must arrange into a word in The Snow Queen, they spell out the story. The good thing about writing this way is that I can write anywhere--in the shower, while doing housework, driving and grocery shopping. The bad thing about writing this way is that I write anywhere and any time--in the shower, while I'm working, watching a movie, reading a book . . . and sleeping.

The more I write, the more my writing affects other aspects of my life and now spills over into my nonfiction. Last night, or rather early this morning, is a good example.

After waking up at 3 a.m., I fully intended to go back to sleep for another couple of hours, but something switched my mind into writing mode. I couldn't sleep. I tossed. I turned. I used my relaxation and breathing techniques. And in my mind, I rearranged the words into a story that has been on the edge of awareness for weeks. No rest would be had this morning, not until I got up and put down on paper or on my computer the words that slithered and slid and rearranged themselves in my mind.

This time it's not a character but a story I've been trying to write about a great love. The deadline looms and so I will lose sleep until what's in my head is on the page and safely sent to the publisher. But characters will follow since I'm finishing rewrites on a finished novel, except that one thing I've learned is that no novel is every really finished. There's always more to do and more I want to do even when the book is in print.

Characters jostle and play hide-and-seek for a while, but eventually, when they begin invading my dreams, I know they're ready to find their way to the page and they won't let me sleep until I give in and let them have their way.

The one goal I've worked toward for so long is being able to quit my day job and spend all my time writing, but I'm beginning to wonder if that's such a good thing. Characters barely recognize the boundaries now. What will happen when I have nothing else to occupy my mind but writing? Will I disappear and the characters take over, using my body to give their dreams and realities life? Probably. And yet that doesn't seem like such a bad trade-off.

When the author disappears and the characters take on a life of their own it's magic. What's a few sleeps nights when the results is the creation of characters who are living, breathing, nagging, dream invading magic?

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