Just when you think you’re getting your hands around something, it gets to wriggling around on you. You ever notice how that is?Fulton County Blues, by Ruth Birmingham, p. 250
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?
Reader, I buried him.The Emperor’s Sword, by Andrew Klavan, p.190
If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer,
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire,
for we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in.Shel Silverstein, from Where the Sidewalk Ends
“Why do you think anyone would want to read about you?” I asked.
“I’m a detective. People like reading about detectives.”
“But you’re not a proper detective. You got fired. Why did you get fired, by the way?”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Well, if I was going to write about you, you’d have to tell me. I’d have to know where you live, whether you’re married or not, what you have for breakfast, what you do on your day off. That’s why people read murder stories.”
“Is that what you think?”
He shook his head. “I don’t agree. The word is murder. That’s what matters.”Anthony Horowitz, The Word is Murder, 2018, p. 25
The blurb on the back of this book calls it a “meta-mystery,” and that’s a perfect description. It is so, so meta.
Horowitz writes about himself, Anthony Horowitz, the guy who has created the TV series Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War and who has written a popular series for kids, and is now trying to break into the adult market. He has just published The House of Silk, a Sherlock Holmes novel in the style of Conan Doyle. He’s approached by this ex-detective, Hawthorne, who still sometimes does consulting work for the local police force. Hawthorne’s idea is that Horowitz will follow him around as he investigates, turn the investigation into a crime novel, and make both of them rich and famous. The problem is that the investigation has just begun, and it’s unknown whether Hawthorne will solve it and, if so, whether it will have a satisfying ending. Also, though Horowitz naturally has to be present while Hawthorne interviews suspects, he is under no circumstances supposed to interrupt, ask his own questions, or contribute in any way. If Hawthorne misses something due to one of these interruptions, it’s Horowitz’s fault.
But How Meta Is It, Really?
I still don’t know how much of this novel is truth and how much is fiction. I think the whole thing is made up. But references to Horowitz’s past books and TV shows, and his descriptions of the industry, seem to be real.
There’s a very funny, agonizing scene where Horowitz is in a meeting with Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg to show them the script he’s written for a planned second Tintin movie. He’s been working on the script for months, and he’s feeling excited as well as startstruck to be in the same room as Spielberg. But Spielberg abruptly tells him that the Tintin book he has turned into a script is the “wrong” book, even though that’s the one he and Jackson had agreed to use. Into this tense moment, Hawthorne bursts in. He fails to recognize Spielberg, but recognizes Jackson and compliments him. He then insists that Horowitz leave with him. The directors insist that Horowitz leave too, saying they will call him back, which they never do.
That sounds awfully realistic, even if it didn’t happen with Hawthorne. Even if there is no such person as Hawthorne. There is also no such person as Damian Cowper, the British movie star, recently relocated to Hollywood, who is at the center of the mystery.
So, on the whole, I think this actually is, as they say, a “fiction novel,” weaving in nonfiction glimpses into Horowitz’s career, modern London, and the conditions in the publishing and movie/TV industry. Horowitz’s insights about writing and marketing his work are enjoyable. And the novel is extremely professionally written. The characters, the writing itself, the clues, and the satisfying nature of the mystery all show that Horowitz has been writing mysteries for many years.
The Tintin Rant
I do have to take one side trip to rant about a rant of Horowitz’s. If you will pardon a long quote:
Tintin is a European phenomenon and one that has never been particularly popular across the Atlantic. Part of the reason for this may be historical. The 1932 album, Tintin in America, is a ruthless satire on the United States, showing Americans to be vicious, corrupt and insatiable: the very first panel shows a policeman saluting a masked bandit who is walking past with a smoking gun — and no sooner has Tintin arrived in New York and climbed into a taxi than he finds himself being kidnapped by the Mob. The entire history of Native Americans is brilliantly told in five panels. Oil is discovered on a reservation. Cigar-smoking businessmen move in. Soldiers drive the crying Native American children off their land. Builders and bankers arrive. Just one day later, a policeman tells Tintin to get out of the way of a major traffic intersection. “Where do you think you are — the Wild West?”The Word is Murder, p. 148
O.K., Mr. Horowitz.
First of all, I can tell you the exact reason Tintin isn’t popular in the United States: It’s just not available. Oh, sure, it’s available now. Now we can get anything, with the Internet. But when I was a kid, there was just nowhere in the U.S. that you would see Tintin albums for sale. I was first exposed to them because we knew a family who had lived in Europe for a time, and once we knew of his existence, my siblings and I enjoyed Tintin just as much as any kids would. The same goes for Asterix and Obelix, by the way. It’s still kind of difficult to get good-quality A&O albums. When I tried to buy some for my kids, one arrived with the pages falling out.
Secondly, it never occurred to me, reading Tintin in America in the 1990s, that it was a “vicious satire” of America. I just figured it was all the silliest and most extreme stereotypes about America, which is the same treatment that Herge gives pretty much every country he portrays. And, the idea that Americans would be shocked by this portrayal? I don’t know, maybe in the 1930s. But this generation Xer would like to point out that gangster movies are one of our most beloved film genres, and that we are taught from knee-high about the injustices done to the Native Americans (besides many films and books being made about same). And in fact, Herge’s portrayal of the way the Indians talk would not be considered acceptable in America today. So, yeah, Mr. Horowitz, I realize you are very smart British author — and it’s obvious from your craft that you are smarter than I will ever be — but I think you may have overestimated Americans’ provinciality just a tad, while also underestimating our IQ.
The best thing about this book, in a way, is the detective, Hawthorne. He is also the most unsatisfying thing. He never does allow Horowitz to get to know him. He really does prove to be brilliant, and Horowitz sort of ends up playing Hastings to Hawthorne’s Poirot. This is all the more frustrating for Horowitz (and for the reader) because Horowitz is not dumb and he knows it. He’s an adult with a good career well underway, and he knows his way around a mystery novel. He just hasn’t had direct experience with real-life investigating.
Hawthorne is the sort of person that all of us have had to work with at one time or another. He comes off as unwittingly controlling, always telling Horowitz his business. He doesn’t like the title “The Word is Murder,” for example. He wants it to be “Hawthorne Investigates.” (Spielberg and Jackson back him up.) He doesn’t like the way that Horowitz sets the scene in the first chapter. Although not a writer, he thinks that Horowitz should methodically introduce every detail that Hawthorne would notice, without any atmosphere or description. He gives advice about choice of words. Whenever Horowitz objects “But I’m the one you asked to write it!”, Hawthorne says something like, “Hey, don’t get all upset! I was just trying to help.”
This is the kind of person that you cannot be around for very long. Unless you are pathologically conceited, all their “help” can’t help but make you doubt yourself. Although we cannot work long-term with such a person, it is nice to see one portrayed in fiction (if this … is … fiction?). It lets us know that even pros like Horowitz have had the same experience.
You’ve seen me complain about characters who are given no physical description. Here is an author who knows how to do it right:
[The] man so exactly suited the image of the funeral director that he could have been playing the part. There was, of course, the obligatory dark suit and somber tie. But the very way he stood seemed to suggest that he was apologising for having to be there. His hands were clasped together in a gesture of profound regret. His face was crumpled, mournful, not helped by hair that had thinned to the edge of baldness and a beard that had the look of a failed experiment. He wore tinted spectacles that were sinking into the bridge of his nose, not just framing his eyes but masking them. He was about forty years old. He too was smiling.Anthony Horowitz, The Word Is Murder, p. 3
That last line is the master stroke.
Keltie Sheffield is a real estate agent. In space. About two thousand years after humanity has learned to take to the stars. She sells planets like you would sell a house, but with a 200-year mortgage, paid off by the buyer’s great-grandchildren. She sells this one planet, which she thinks is uninhabited, but … you can imagine how that could possibly go wrong.
Also, she’s a young career gal who chose this path to spite her parents. Lost in space, she’s rescued by an adorable, gentlemanly military reservist named Grayson, and … you can imagine the possibilities.
At 162 pages, Phantom Planet is light, crisp, and refreshing, sort of like eating a handful of cucumber slices, maybe with a little tzatziki. Also like that, it goes quickly, and sort of feels like it was written quickly. I finished it in about one day. Also like the cucumber, it is really tasty (i.e. fun) and digestible, but it feels like just the appetizer. I got the feeling this book was the setup for a much larger epic. Which it is, as it is one in a planned series called “Galaxy Mavericks.” Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so many bricks lately, but it felt like just a first chapter.
One more cucumber comparison: this book is very clean. There is plenty of budding chemistry between Keltie and Grayson, but spoiler alert: they don’t even manage to kiss. At least not in this book.
There were a ton of fun and charming moments. I am pretty sure the author gave himself a cameo (as a bookseller, naturally), and I’m now wondering whether he does this in all his books. Also, the scientific disclaimer at the beginning is delightful: “OK, pretty much every area of science probably got bastardized in some way while I wrote this book. Any and all errors were made lovingly for your reading enjoyment.” Gosh, I wish I’d thought of that line!
The food and fashion in Phantom Planet still retain many influences from Earth circa 2020. Keltie enjoys wine and chocolate croissants, for example. The women wear jewelry, which women have always loved to do, but you seldom see it in most space settings. (And why don’t more space opera characters get drunk in space? That seems like such a human thing to do, but this is the first time I can remember encountering it.) And, despite thousands of years of technology advancing, human beings are pretty much the same: there are still phishing scams!
One more thing that it may surprise you to see someone do in space: pray. “Prayer was always important in space. It kept things in perspective for her. A lot of people forgot that and often got carried away” (page 39). And no, this is not just meditation: Keltie is “thanking God,” and she wears a cross necklace. This element is kept very low-key, but it is so refreshing to find in a genre that often assumes that people, in the course of discovering that distant galaxies and alien races exist, will have “discovered” that God doesn’t. Space travel (even in this series, where it’s comparatively easy) is so dangerous, full of wonders, and above all disorienting that we can imagine that prayer would be a very human response and an excellent way to keep one’s sanity. Yet it is missing from so many books in this genre which, consciously or not, wish to portray human nature as mutable.
But What Does She Look Like?
Besides the “this is just the first chapter,” slightly less-than-satisfying feel of this book, which I understand because it’s part of a series, one minor thing bothered me.
We are given physical descriptions of nearly all the major characters, including Grayson, Keltie’s boss, her flight crew, her clients, and her best friend. We are not given a physical description of Keltie. Being able to picture the characters is important to me, so I just imagined her looking like a women from the cover of another La Ronn book I had seen (which is in a completely different genre). About 3/4 of the way through, we are finally told that Keltie has very long hair. Then that her sister is “blonde-haired and skinny and unlike [Keltie] in every way” (p.134). So, Keltie apparently is stout or curvy, with long, dark hair. I still don’t know what color her eyes are.
Maybe this issue is not important to any reader but me. (Maybe it’s even a trend. Is there some rule that we are not supposed to describe the point-of-view character, so that readers can picture that character however they like? I’m asking because I recently read a different book that made this same omission.) As for me, I take cover art very seriously as a clue to how the characters look, and I dislike having to guess and/or revise my mental image of the character partway through. (Especially if you are going to introduce a romance as a subplot.) Please, fellow authors, when you first introduce a character, give us a quick physical sketch, even if it’s just one or two outstanding physical features that can act as a peg to build our mental image on. I’m not saying you have to do the scene where the character looks at herself in the mirror (though if she DOES happen to look in a mirror, and you don’t tell me anything about what she sees, I’m going to be miffed). Just throw me a bone here.
Now … Go Eat Some Cucumber!
Other than those minor quibbles, this was an enjoyable book. There were lots of questions left unanswered that make me want to get the next one. If you like space operas and are looking for a new series to gobble up, check out Michael La Ronn’s Galaxy Mavericks! This would be a good series for libraries to carry because readers will speed through the books and check them out one after the other.
So now I find myself writing a horror story.
I didn’t plan things this way. I guess it’s what I get for writing about The Great Snake. I mean, did I expect it to be nice?
So, just a warning to anyone who is planning to read all the way through my trilogy … it’s heading in a sort of horror direction. Sorry if that’s not your thing.
How do you handle expresssions of time when writing about a preindustrial culture that does not use our time divisons?
Not that Preindusrial People Are Unaware of Time …
I’m not meaning to imply that people in preindustrial cultures take no notice of time. This is a notion, sometimes asserted, that goes with the romantic “noble savage” idea that because hunter-gatherers live closer to the earth, they necessarily live a “simpler” life, comparatively free from worries, cares, and conflict. See The Gods Must Be Crazy, the Wild Yam Question, and many others.
In fact, the earth is trying to kill you, so people who live close to the earth have plenty of survival-related worries (besides the usual human sin problem that did not first arise with industrialization). Farmers have to pay detailed attention to months and seasons, as do hunters, who also have to be concerned with times of day. So, no, there are no “time-free” people. In fact, there have been many ancient cultures that were very, very concerned with calendars. See Stonehenge, above, which was apparently a computer for predicting eclipses, and the Maya, who could be fairly said to be obsessed with dates.
But, Seriously, How Do You Deal with Time?
But, of course, it makes no sense to have a hunter-gatherer culture going around talking about the months by the names we give them. Let alone the days of the week, although if you follow Genesis, people have always known that days come in sevens and one day is for rest. Talk of seconds and minutes is even more of an atmosphere killer when it comes to verisimilitude.
Sci-fi writers can make up their own time divisions or draw on terms from sci-fi convention: clicks, parsecs, light-years, cycles, and no, I don’t know what most of these words mean really. They are fun, though. Perhaps in the comments you can enlighten me.
Anyway, here is how I deal with time. I didn’t spend a lot of … you-know-what … thinking about this when I first started drafting. I became more aware of it as my characters moved more into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. You will still occasionally see the word, for example, “hours” crop up in my books. But when it would not take too much rewriting to get rid of modern time-words, here is what I use:
- I don’t talk about specific months by name. Rather, I talk about seasons. (Early spring, midwinter, etc.) (However, if you are interested, my character Ikash’s birthday is in April and Hyuna’s birthday is right around Christmas.)
- I do sometimes mention months in a generic sense, because everyone is aware of lunar months. I don’t say “moons,” because that sounds … well, I just feel like saying “moons” is a minefield.
- It has never been necessary for me to mention weeks, either.
- For “minute,” I try to use “moment,” which is less specific and technical sounding.
- I use “a few beats” instead of “a few seconds.”
- Nanoseconds, for some reason, have never come up.
I stop reading any sentence that starts with “Last night I dreamt …” unless it ends with “… I went to Manderley again.”Kelsey Miller, “Big Girl,” p. 201