A reader recently asked me this, and I have added it to my FAQs page.
Q. I’ve heard writers say “I was going to do X, but then the character did Y.” I always think, Wait, aren’t you the one who makes up what the character does?
A. Well, it may sound strange, but when we are writing fiction, the characters do “come to life” and do things the author wasn’t completely planning. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if this does not happen, then the story is not working. All the richest parts of my own stories have come about as a result of this phenomenon.
Of course, the author still has to “make up” what the character is doing in a sense, and write it down. But it seems to come from somewhere else at the same time. This is similar to what happens to actors and musicians when they talk about “being in the zone.” They still have to play the notes or say the words, and they need to be talented and to have practiced. But something more is also going on. This is the reason that ancient poets and storytellers used to invoke the Muse before embarking on their art.
I’m not sure this phenomenon is experienced by every single fiction writer. Perhaps there are some very meticulous plotters who don’t experience this and who still write perfectly good books. But this “characters coming to life” thing is definitely a part of my own process, and I’ve heard many other authors talk about it, so I know I’m not the only one.
On a related note, I’ve heard that some people write up “character sheets” before they begin drafting their novel. They come up with details about the character’s personality, back story, etc. In my case, I don’t do this kind of thing before I start drafting; instead, it’s part of the drafting process. I observe how the characters react in the situations I place them, and they reveal back story as we go. It wasn’t until after writing The Long Guest, for example, that I was able to tell that Nirri is an ESTP on the Meyers-Briggs. And MBTI typing him, by then, was just more a silly, fun exercise than a part of character development.
Fellow authors, please chime in about whether and how you have experienced this phenomenon.Do you count on your characters coming to life during the drafting or outlining process? Or is it something that occasionally happens, and you enjoy, but that you can get through a novel without? Has a character ever become so recalcitrant that you had to re-work your entire plot?
Many of my fellow book bloggers are doing posts called “mid-year freakout.”
I can definitely relate.
But it happens that at this particular midyear, I am in a pretty good place.
I don’t normally blog about my professional writing life, because up until now I haven’t had much to report. But now I do have something to report. So this post is going to be about my progress getting my novels published as of mid-2020.
If you know me personally, you are probably already familiar with the material in this post. So please feel free to skip it if you’ve heard these stories before or simply don’t like writers writing about themselves. I will be back next week with exciting blog content, though (pantser that I am) I don’t yet know whether it will be about the ancient world, my favorite authors, or perhaps the equally fascinating subject of … grammar.
Birth of a Book Series
I have been telling and writing stories my whole life, but every writer says that, yadda yadda. Lucky for you I won’t start this story in the 1970s. It begins in late 2016.
Some time in late 2016 or early 2017, I took a story prompt that I had written years before. It was about a man who falls from the Tower of Babel. I only got as far as the fall in the prompt I had written, but I had had it in my mind that this man could be rescued by people who didn’t speak his language (we linguists call this being in a monolingual situation), and being brought with them on a long journey as the peoples scatter throughout the world. So in late 2016 or early 2017, I felt ready to turn this thing into a full novel. I don’t remember why the stars aligned at that time, but they did.
By summer 2017, I thought my paraplegic-man-in-a-monolingual-situation novel was finished. My working title for it was Babel. It was about 50,000 words, which I had been told was a minimum length for a first novel. I excitedly showed it to some family members, and they said nice things, as family members do.
Then I followed the directions for Getting Traditionally Published. The first step was to Find An Agent. (A few publishing houses accept unagented submissions, but most don’t.) The way to find an agent is to look through the acknowledgements section of a book that’s a lot like yours, because sometimes authors thank their agent. I did, and sent my first query.
The agent (and may God bless him for this), replied. “This looks interesting, but it’s too short for the genre. In this genre, anything shorter than 120,000 words is practically a novella.”
I went back to the drawing board. Lo and behold, the agent had been right. There was a lot more potential material in my story, which in haste or laziness I had failed to develop. I figured I would give myself a year to rewrite it, but the story took over and it went much faster. By the end of 2017, I was finished. Turns out the 50,000 word version was barely more than an outline. My finished product was 113,000 words.
In January 2018, I began querying agents for Babel, now called The Long Guest. (I had decided the titles of all the novels in my series would be The + Adjective + Noun. Creative, I know, but I wanted to give them cohesion.)
As I queried, I was also busy learning about the industry, about what agents and publishers want, about how to write a kickass query. (Still not sure I’ve mastered that one.) There was a lot to learn. I bought a book called Writer Mama. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest. In fall 2018, I even attended a writer’s conference. It happened to be about indie publishing, which I was not pursuing at the time, but I went because it was the only conference being held that year for which I would not have to travel.
Meanwhile, I was also working on the sequel to The Long Guest, which would eventually be called The Strange Land (working title Land Bridge). The reason I started it was sort of like having to sneeze: it was an urge. It wasn’t strategy.
By July 2019, I had hit my goal of querying 100 agents with The Long Guest. I had also, some time during that year, finished The Strange Land, shown it to some beta readers, and done some minor revisions. I began querying agents (mostly all the same agents, one of whom had actually said “query me with future projects”), with The Strange Land in August of 2019. The process went more quickly this time because I already had experience writing queries and had a list of literary agencies to check. Also, I had finally figured out my books’ genre (epic fantasy that is light on magic). Writing the synopsis was still excruciating though.
In the fall of 2019, my family and I moved across the country.
Hmmm, well, we all know how 2020 has gone. Or maybe we don’t know exactly. Different ones of us have had different experiences of it. In my case, I continued settling in, home schooling, and querying throughout the winter and early spring months. My husband’s job and our living situation, providentially, were minimally affected by the quarantine.
About April 2020, I had had enough of querying. No agents had shown any interest in either of my novels. It was getting to be an emotional ordeal just to look at an agency’s web site, because when they described what they were looking for and it sounded like a fit with my books, I could no longer get my hopes up. For me, querying agents was like going on 180 blind dates and getting rejected 180 times.
Meanwhile, I had noticed that the shakeup caused by Covid was causing many people to change careers, reconsider their living situations, or start new charity ventures or businesses. I decided I would ride this wave, indie publishing being its own small business. By this time I had been around the industry for a while. I had developed relationships with book bloggers and with other indie authors. I felt ready(ish?). I stopped querying for The Strange Land, even though I hadn’t hit 100. The relief was incredible.
There followed a rest period of a few months while I saved up the money for self-publishing. (But I did start mentioning to other bloggers that my books might be available soon!) Oh, and by the way, during this time I was also drafting the third book in the trilogy, The Great Snake. I had started this back in 2019, not long after I finished The Strange Land. Again, I had planned to take a break, but the story started coming irresistibly, sort of like a sneeze. (The fact that it came that way doesn’t guarantee that it’s good, of course. We’ll see.)
So that brings us up to the present. Through providential circumstances, I have been able to find a copyeditor who gets my books and gets what I am doing. Next step will be cover design. Then I’ll be ready to indie publish. It is my hope and prayer that I’ll stay on track to publish TLG and TSL in rapid succession, before the end of the year, and start selling them on this web site and elsewhere. Meanwhile, I am learning all about self (indie) publishing, which is just as steep a learning curve as learning about the traditional industry.
You, my bloggy friends, have been just great and I hope you’ll stay with me.
Meanwhile, in the Fallen World …
There is something I should mention, lest this post create in other writers misplaced jealousy or unwarranted despair. We live in a fallen world, in which things go wrong a lot. We have our own flaws: laziness, lack of self-discipline, vanity. These slow our progress as writers. Also, this fallen world does push back, in self-defense, against anyone who tries to do something about it. “No good deed goes unpunished.”
So, though I have written out this summary of the steps I took in a (fairly?) matter-of-fact way, never doubt that like every other person, I am familiar with what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance.
What does Resistance feel like? First, unhappiness. We feel like hell. A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. We can’t get no satisfaction. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves. Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing. (page 31)
Resistance is fear. But Resistance is too cunning to show itself in this naked form. Why? Because if Resistance lets us see clearly that our own fear is preventing us from doing our work, we may feel shame at this. And shame may drive us to act in the face of fear. Resistance doesn’t want us to do this. So it brings in Rationalization. What’s particularly insidious about the rationalizations that Resistance presents to us is that a lot of them are true. (page 55)
The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got. (page 18)
from The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
For example, immediately after a phone consultation with a potential editor, within a few hours I was faced with failures in the areas of parenting, cooking, and gardening. Later that same week I found my copyeditor, but that day was kind of hellish. That’s just an example from this year.
Lord, Have Mercy
Resistance will no doubt continue. Who knows whether it will get me. Though I have written confidently about my plans for this series as if they are actually going to happen, let me hasten to add …
“If the Lord wills, we will live and also publish this or that.” (James 4:15)
Ben Shapiro interviews an eclectic grab bag of people each week on his Sunday Special. (Their main common factor is that they were willing to come on and be interviewed by him.) The interview embedded below is my favorite of all the ones he’s done so far. It’s super long, but if you are interested in the fiction industry or the writing process or the sci-fi and fantasy genres or identity politics or religion, then it will be worth your while.
Orson Scott Card is the author of the super popular sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. I tried to read this novel when I was way too young and I did not get all the way through it. It was hard for me to keep in mind that Ender and his co-trainees were kids when in some ways they acted like geniuses.
Card is also a Mormon, or LDS (Latter-Day Saint) as many of them prefer to be called. This gives him a unique perspective on religion, specifically on what it’s like to be misunderstood as a religious person.
AT 4:18, Card clears up what exactly counts as sci-fi versus fantasy: “The usual is that science fiction is stuff that has not happened but is possible, and fantasy is stuff that doesn’t happen and isn’t actually possible but we can imagine it. And that almost works except for the fact that it’s considered science fiction if you do things like faster-than-light travel or time travel. And those can’t happen. Time travel especially, because the string of causality is unbreakable. … So it’s arguable. But I learned the practical definition right away. The covers of fantasy books have trees. The covers of science fiction books have sheet metal with rivets. So it’s rivets versus trees. If your story is illustratable with rivets then it’s sci-fi, and if it needs trees to be effective, then it’s fantasy.” (N.b.: This is why my books are fantasy even though they feature no wizards.)
11:35 On the fact that fantasy magic systems have rules too: “You can’t just throw magic on the page and make it fantasy. You have to make it fantasy that would pass muster with a science fiction writer, because that’s who’s writing fantasy now.”
At 15:00, he addresses Pantsing versus Plotting: “I try to think ahead. Mostly milieu development. Then I’ll think of obligatory scenes, things that have to happen. And I’ll have to then set up those scenes so that they mean something. So there’s some planning that goes into it. I know writers who think like screenwriters, and their thought is all on the [outline]. I can’t do that, because anything I wrote for anything after chapter two is going to be discarded as soon as I find out what’s going on in chapter one. The process is pretty flexible, because by the time I’m nearing the end of any novel, the outline is now a relic … And I’ve seen, for example, an early novel by Dean Koontz, where it was obvious to me that after developing an amazing cast of characters that readers cared about, he caught up with the point in the outline where they all go into an alien spaceship together, and at that point he was just following the outline and it didn’t matter who any of the characters were.” (N.b.: Card’s method is plantsing, and it is the method I use as well. )
At 37:00, he starts talking about religions in fiction: “If you are going to create a character that has an existing religion, you have a responsibility to make it plausible. In America, we have two generic religions. If you need a hierarchical religion, you use Catholic. If you need a congregational religion, you use generic-Protestant-but-really-Baptist. Those religions are available and we all have some experience with them by watching movies. Jewish, not so much. I would feel a great deal of trepidation making a character of mine Jewish, especially orthodox, because I’ve known enough orthodox Jews to know how rigorous the demands are, what has to be kept in your head all the time. And I do that as a Mormon. I know all of our rules by heart, I don’t even have to think about them any more. But whenever I watch somebody’s fictional treatment of Mormonism, no one ever gets it right. No one even comes close. Getting somebody else’s religion wrong is a terrible faux pas.”
41:56: “That’s one of my minor messages: people have religion, and the fiction writer who retreats from that is cheating himself and his readers.”
43:51: “There are smart people in Hollywood. There are good people in Hollywood. They just don’t have the power to greenlight a film.”
At 52:00, he starts talking about the move towards identity politics in sci-fi: “And many of them, whom I know, are people who are simply writing their conscience. But their conscience is ill-informed.”
55:20 and following, on race: “When every white person in America knows that they are labelled as racist, that means why keep trying? Because no matter what you do, you are going to be labelled as white privileged and as racist. … But I know that now, all white people are getting more and more nervous that no matter what they say, it’s going to be turned on them and used to call them the ugly name racist. And that is pretty much the ugliest name that we have in our vocabulary right now. If you’re looking for your Tourette’s list of words that you should not speak, words which will wound, the f-word is way way low on the list. We are used to the f-word, we hear it all the time. Compared to racist. Wow! That’s serious. That’s savage.”
“Yeah maybe,” Heather said. “I think we’re speculating. It seems like whenever we have a conversation like this, it’s almost a guarantee that it’s not how things are going to happen. Like the writers of our lives are trying to be intentionally unpredictable.”
“That’s one way to put it,” Ace said. “It does seem uncanny how true that is. So, if you were a writer and you wanted to mislead your readers so the story would be filled with unexpected twists, would you write your basic story with an outline and then go back and insert conversations like this one to intentionally mislead the readers or would you write the book as you go and change the plot as the characters figured out what’s going on?”
“Neither,” said Heather. “I would know all the characters, know their personalities and abilities, then throw it all together and see what happens. Even I would be surprised at how the events play out.”
“I think that would make for a completely chaotic story,” Ace considered. “I suppose if the characters were likable or made a lot of smart remarks, people might read it anyway even if it did seem like the author had no idea where the story was going.”
“I would totally put this conversation in the book,” Heather said.
Here is Ikash, who was a teenager when he was the protagonist of my novel The Strange Land. Now he is a husband and father, and he is doing what husbands and fathers do … trying to protect his family from the scary things in the world. (Of course Hyuna could help with this too, but as you can see, she recently had a baby, so she needs him to do the heavy lifting.)
This exact scene does not happen in my third book (at least not yet!), but it does illustrate his basic stance throughout that novel.
The black and white drawing did not scan great … a lot of detail was lost … but I needed something to post.
A month ago, I wrote a post about the Big Five personality traits (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Openness). In the comments, Katie Jane Gallagher suggested that an author could use the Big Five to plan out their characters’ personalities. I replied that this might work for some people, but I was doubtful my characters would co-operate with being assigned a personality beforehand.
I still think it would be difficult to assign, in a fixed way, all five of your character’s traits before you begin writing. But I have thought of a trope that relies heavily on the use of character traits: the odd couple.
The Source of the phrase “The Odd Couple”
The Odd Couple was a 1968 movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Then there was a 1970 – 1975 TV series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.
Also, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick played the same odd couple in a Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s original play.
In all of the versions, the premise is that two men are living together because each has been kicked out by their wives: one for being such a perfectionist, the other for being such a slob. High jinks follow.
How odd couple stories use Big Five traits
As you can immediately see, the odd couple trope relies on selecting one Big Five personality trait (in this case, Conscientiousness) and throwing together two people who are on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to that trait.
This is much more manageable than trying to run down all five traits for each of your characters before beginning to plot.
Of course, when you start to develop the story, other traits will come along too. In this story, the conscientious character (Lemmon/Randall/Broderick) is also high on Neuroticism. Interestingly, it is he, with his extreme conscientiousness, who is portrayed as being the harder person to live with. The slobby person is portrayed as more normal. That is not what I expected when I set out to research the show, because in real life, slobby people can be just as hard to live with, especially if they are low in Agreeableness, for example.
In fact, some shows will dispense with the “couple” part of the odd couple and just have the gimmick revolve around one person’s extreme traits. Monk springs to mind, in which the detective’s OCD about cleanliness is so incapacitating that he must have a handler with him at all times … but his attention to detail also makes him an excellent detective.
Odd Couples Everywhere!
Once you start looking for odd couples in film and literature, it seems to be a trope that is used to enrich all kinds of stories. You find odd couple cop partners, odd couple road trips, and (ubiquitously) odd couples in rom-coms. Often odd-couple stories are funny, but they can appear in dramas as well, such as Thelma and Louise, or Charlie and Raymond in Rain Man. Whether comedy or drama (but especially in drama), one or both characters are supposed to be transformed in some way by their forced relationship with their polar opposite.
In my own first book, The Long Guest, there is a bit of an odd couple dynamic going on between Enmer and Nimri. Enmer reacts to the demise of civilization by becoming hyper-responsible as he tries to care for his extended family. Nimri, who at the beginning of the book is selfish and has no one to care for, honestly doesn’t care if he himself lives or dies. The two are forced into proximity by the dynamics of the survival situation (and by Enmer’s mother, Zillah), and while they never resolve their differences, the inherent conflict between them drives much of the action in the book.
So … what do you think? Do you like odd couple stories? Are you a member of an odd couple? Perhaps more intensely, now during quarantine? Have odd couple stories lost their appeal? What are some of your favorite odd couples from film or literature?