Esther M. Friesner
I’ve been asked to guest-blog about my relationship with my characters, and I’m more than happy for the opportunity. Unaccustomed as I am to official blogging (though I suppose my near-daily posts in the newsgroup I’ve got going over at sff.net counts as something akin) I don’t know whether or not it’s the done thing to provide a title for this.
But I want one, so here goes:
“Who Are These People and Why Are They All Calling Me ‘Mom’?”
You might notice a slight note of exasperation there. That’s because my relationship with my characters is rather like my relationship with my children, though with a few vital differences: I never had to put any of my characters through college and I’m less likely to freak out when my characters go through extreme risks, terrifying perils, and wild adventures, or when they insist on associating with bad companions, strange body piercings, and ink-now-regret-later tattoos.
Ah, but the similarities not only outnumber the differences, they have ganged up on the differences after school and pantsed them. Allow me to elaborate, won’t you?
Good characters—by which I mean believable characters—can make or break a book. I expect a lot from mine, and we begin our relationship with many high hopes and glorious dreams on my part. As with children, I have certain plans for my characters, a path that I want them to follow, and not just any path, but one that I feel will be the best for them. And so it begins.
Now the thing about characters and children is this: As their stories unfold and develop, the proud parent begins to get the first inklings that there are going to be a few bumps in the road to Happily Ever After. With kids, this usually manifests around the age of two and the bumps in the road are all spelled N-O. “NO!” moments are soon joined by their even more tooth-gritting companion, “WHY?” Trust me, no matter how staunchly a new mother promises herself that “I will never, ever become the kind of parent who tells her kids, ‘Because I said so’,” a few days of unremitting, merciless “NO!” and “WHY?” will reduce that promise to dust. Weeping, snapping, tearing-your-hair-out, at-the-end-of-your-rope dust.
Good parents want to raise kids who are capable of independence (although it’s often hard to remember this when dealing with a stubborn toddler). I want my characters to manifest their independence, too. It’s the difference between raising/creating a person and not a puppet. The downside is, sometimes I hear “NO!” and “WHY?” from my characters at certain points in the process of writing their story.
I write historical novels about young women who don’t follow other people’s expectations. Such expectations often include their family’s and their culture’s beliefs that these girls must marry a certain person, must limit themselves to only certain occupations, must live what the older generation sees as the only “proper” life for a young woman.
My girls say “NO!” and “WHY?” a lot. And that’s a good thing. Of late I’ve been playing BookMom to characters like young Helen of Troy (although in NOBODY’S PRINCESS and NOBODY’S PRIZE, she’s still just Helen of Sparta), Nefertiti (whose girlhood adventures in SPHINX’S PRINCESS and SPHINX’S QUEEN presage the powerful Egyptian ruler she’ll become), and Raisa (a young Jewish immigrant who, in THREADS AND FLAMES, needs every bit of inner strength she can muster when she experiences the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911). My girls have got to be able to stand up for themselves.
While they’re asserting their independence from what their families and societies expect of them, they are also establishing their personalities. A fictional character has to have an interesting personality because why on earth would a reader want to spend any time following the story of someone bland, dull and boring? The trouble is, sometimes the process works too well and I find myself facing off against my characters like so:
ME: Now, dear, in Chapter Seven you’re supposed to fall in love with this guy who--
ME: I beg your pardon? The plot I’ve created says that in Chapter Seven, you have to—
SHE: No, I don’t have to. Okay, maybe you think I have to, but I won’t. I mean, really, have you taken a good look at that guy? He’s shallow and he’s selfish and I don’t care how handsome or rich he is, or how many compliments and gifts he gives me, I have spent my entire life so far (Chapters One through Six) establishing the fact that I am not the kind of girl who would waste one minute of her time on someone like him! Not unless you’re planning to have me lose my mind, or be replaced by my Evil Twin, or replace me with a robot--which is going to be a neat trick to pull off in a pre-21st century historical novel—or--
ME: No, no, of course I won’t do something like that, but if the story’s going to get from Point A to Point B, the way I have it planned—
SHE: So change the plan. Or change him. People can change, right?
ME: Couldn’t you change just a little dear? For me? Pleeeeease?
SHE: You want me to change? [This is the point where I learn that fictional characters can roll their eyes eloquently] How? By going from being a girl with an actual backbone to a wimp who’s always cooing “I know he’s a jerk, but I looooooove him?” Oh, I don’t think so. Unless you want to ruin the book. . .and my whole life!
This is usually the point at which I realize that, despite being so much younger than I am and owing her very existence to me, my character is right. She knows who she is and where her personal boundaries lie. She’s grown up to be a person with certain traits, tastes, beliefs, standards, strengths, and—yes—weaknesses, and if I don’t agree to let her live her life (and my plot) in her own way, I’ll be back to dealing with a puppet, not a person.
And that would ruin the whole book. No, thank you.
I’m not saying that I always give my characters their own way as soon as they demand it. Sometimes I can reason with them. Sometimes I can make them see that there’s an undiscovered part of their personality that will allow them to go along with what I’ve got planned for them without making them sacrifice one whit of their identities or independence.
And sometimes I just give them a cookie and/or my credit cards, tell them to go ahead and try it their own way, and see how that works out for them. I’ll be standing by to pick up the pieces in the rewrites, in case of mishap or disaster. I’ll also be standing by to admit they were right, which is how it usually turns out.
My characters. . .gotta love ‘em. After all, they take after their Mom. [G]
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