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You cannot afford to have any cardboard characters, anywhere

Last night, while I was working on the revised story outline for Against the Clock, I discovered something about one of my characters that I never knew before. It was one of those weird moments when I was writing, and I tapped out a quick filler line of dialogue for her, and then looked at the words and thought Wait, does that mean…? And as clear as day, she looked at me and said, with conviction and grace and a fierce determination – Yes, it does.

Characters take on a life of their own. It’s a weird phenomenon that I can only liken to the way that sometimes your brain will pluck a completely random and obscure thought out of mid-air, surprising you with it. Characters do that too. I never saw this revelation coming, but goodness it makes her a lot more interesting and layered. And I’m really excited now to explore that new dimension.

In my previous blog, I rattled on about Joss Whedon, one of my writing heroes. Another writer whose work I greatly admire is the much lesser-known Doris Egan, who has written for various TV shows over the years, including House, Smallville, Tru Calling and Dark Angel. Not the greatest shows, but her work was always excellent in it, and she also wrote a few great entries on her blog tightropegirl.livejournal.com about writing. In one post from way back in the dark ages of 2006, she was discussing how important (or unimportant) it is to do your research, depending on what you’re writing (e.g. historical fiction = lots of research) and it evolved into a discussion on characterisation. I had the following passage printed out and stuck on my wall for years, and I read it almost every day. It has had a huge impact on the way that I approach writing, and characterisation, and I owe her a debt of gratitude for it.

Let’s move on to look at a hypothetical short story you decide to write about an encounter between a visiting handyman who’s repairing a kitchen cupboard and a ten-year-old boy — a conversation about a bird that strikes the window glass in the kitchen and knocks itself out. Your story takes place in the present day and is from the point of view of the boy. You need only one piece of information here: you want to initiate the conversation by having the handyman ask the boy to fetch him a tool from the box by the door, and you want to know what tool it might be. You could, conceivably, in the heat of creation, write that entire story out while it’s fresh in your mind and wants to be written, leaving a blank in one sentence for the name of the tool.

Those are the two ends of the spectrum: for a historical novel, you may have spent a couple of years reading all sorts of books; for the handyman story, you only need a word, and you don’t have to wait for it to write the first draft. But it is a spectrum, make no mistake.

Let’s go back to the handyman story, and this time do it from the point of view of the handyman. Now you have a bit more research to do, even if the dialogue stays the same — because you need to know the inside of that character’s head. When he walks into that house he’ll be aware, even if distantly, of whether he’s been there before; what kind of jobs he usually does; how long he thinks this will take; whether he sees it as simple or complex; and in a general sense, what he gets out of it. By that last, I mean you’ll want to have an idea, whether you reference it or not, as to why he’s a handyman. Does he like the freedom? Is he in the country on a work permit and this is all he could get? Is he actually making a fair living? Is he good at what he does? When the boy’s mother tells him the problem, does he reflect on how his clients tend not to know what the real problem is, and underestimate how long repairs will take?

Now let’s muddy the waters and say the boy’s encounter with the handyman is one scene in a movie about a ten-year-old boy who witnesses a murder. The handyman has nothing to do with the murder, and is only in this one scene; the point of it is to confront the boy with death (in the form of the bird flying against the window and killing itself). This lets the audience hear what the boy has to say, thereby subtextually referencing the murder and giving us an idea of thoughts he hasn’t been able to share with anyone. None of this is in the viewpoint of the handyman, so you don’t have to work out his life’s story — from a pure research standpoint, you still only need that one tool name. You’re on the extreme “easy” end of the spectrum here.

But. For the scene to mean anything, you’ll want to have an idea of who that character is — again, why he’s a handyman, how much money he makes, where he lives, whether he has a son of his own, whether he’s an easy person to talk to or a misanthrope (the latter could actually be more interesting in this situation) — all the things that give him shape and life. Assuming you haven’t set this story in some exotic locale, most or all of these are things you can work out using ordinary commonsense knowledge. But work them out you must, because in my opinion, spear carriers must live. He’s not going to spill out those details to the boy, but they’ll define how he talks and what his emotional reactions are; and you can’t afford to have any cardboard characters, anywhere.

Not everyone agrees. I remember, years ago, a writing teacher (a good teacher, too) criticizing another student’s manuscript, in which a traumatized crime witness is picked up by a passing couple in a van. They’re feminist activists who work with abused women, and they assume the traumatized woman was attacked, probably by a boyfriend. The witness says nothing to any of this, and the scene only takes a couple of minutes, but I remember thinking how well-realized everyone was. I said to myself, “If the walk-ons are this rich, I can’t wait to read the rest!” The teacher, on the other hand, thought that by making passing characters too interesting, you take away from the leads; a reader’s attention span is only so long. Pish, I say to that. And tosh as well.

Spear carriers must live. And one way to do that is simply never to have them behave as expected if you can avoid it. What really disturbs the attention span of the audience, in my opinion, is the boredom that comes from predictability.

You can read Doris Egan’s full blog post here.

Sometimes that unpredictability is intentional. I had an idea a few days ago for a plotline in a series of six novels that I’m planning (I’m ridiculously ambitious sometimes) that would really muddy up the waters in my protagonist’s life. It’s one of those cases where you think “Wouldn’t it be interesting if…?” and then your brain goes “Yeah, but wouldn’t it be even more interesting if…?” and then you’re just rubbing your hands together with glee thinking about working that story out, except unfortunately now you have to go to work and put stories on the backburner for the day.

But I digress. Several lines from Doris’s blog post above have continued to resonate with me over the last eight years since I first read it:

For the scene to mean anything…

Every scene has to mean something. It has to add to the story in some way, shape or form. It might be simply to establish a relationship between characters, it might be a building block towards a later scene, and the first time through, readers might not think twice about it. But when they re-read, when they come back to it, they’ll be able to see how it fits into the bigger story. They’ll realise why it’s important, and what it means. Every scene has to be there for a reason – another thing I learned from TV. When you only have 42 minutes to tell a story, you have to make every minute of it count. If you want to keep your readers engaged, you have to do the same thing when you write.

You cannot afford to have any cardboard characters, anywhere.

This. This one line, more than any other, goes through my head repeatedly when I’m writing, and when I’m reviewing. Every character has to have a backstory, a reason. One of the characters I’m most proud of is Susannah Andrews, from Dare to Dream (and Dream On, though in a lesser role). Susannah reads like a stereotype, the spoiled rich girl who treats her ponies poorly, and is only out to win. I needed a character like Susannah for the story to work – but I wanted her to be human. There is a reason for everything she does. She’s being driven by her parents and their competitive nature, and it’s her fear of failure and disappointing them that pushes her on. But when it goes too far, she sees it, and she finds the courage to change the course she’s been on.

There are many characters like Susannah in pony fiction – the spoiled rich girl is a staple of the genre. Sometimes these characters are redeemed, and sometimes they’re not. Often they’re redeemed for one novel, when we get a flash of insight into who they are as a person and why they behave that way, but by the next instalment they’re back to being the villain, because the writer only sees them that way in their head. To me, Susannah was never a villain – she was a victim. When I reintroduced her in Dream On, it was important to me that other people were able to recognise that too.

Spear carriers must live.

Which is to say, even the background characters have to have a backstory. I have a huge spreadsheet document on my computer that shows every character I ever have or ever plan to write a book about, and where they are at a certain point in time, so that the books can eventually all exist on a timeline. Characters will weave their way in and out of each other’s stories. (Hint: there is a character in both Dare to Dream and Dream On who will feature heavily in books 3 and 4 of the Clearwater Bay series – although notably all of the Clearwater Bay books actually take place earlier – if you look closely in Flying Changes, you’ll find Peter Andrews competing in Pony of the Year on his grey pony Flying High, who is being ridden by his younger sister Susannah by the time we get to Dare to Dream…)

Again, I digress. The point of this is that every character, no matter how seemingly insignificant to the story, has a background. I am excited to write books about one character where someone forms an opinion of another person and the reader agrees, then they read another book from that person’s perspective and realise that there was so much going on that they didn’t even know before. Because that’s how life works. We never know what’s going on in other people’s lives, and often operate on our own assumptions. I’m fascinated by that, and it is destined to become a hallmark of my work.

Because there are so many things that I know about my characters that readers don’t. Some of these details will eventually be revealed, others might remain only known to me. If they’re not pertinent to the telling of the story, I leave them out of it. But the characters have lives beyond the glimpses that are in my books – they’ve lived before them and will live on after them.

The boredom that comes from predictability.

Never have your characters behave as expected, if you can help it. I think about this a lot. Characters often behave unpredictably in books – and sometimes their actions are startling, but make sense. Sometimes they don’t, and that was a huge challenge for me in writing Dare to Dream – to have the big reveal at the end make sense to the reader, even though it was (hopefully) unexpected. It seemed to work. As pony book expert Jane Badger said in her review of Dare to Dream – “I do like a book where I haven’t worked out how it will end well before I’ve got there.” Phew.

Jane in particular found Susannah to be a compelling character, telling me that “I really liked Susannah, and I particularly liked the fact you sent her away into a complex, and ambivalent situation. Looking forward to see what you do with her next.”

Jane hasn’t read Dream On yet, but she does have a copy to review, and will hopefully have a chance to do so soon. In the meantime I’m trying to be patient, and hoping that she’ll like it as much as she did Dare to Dream. And that she will appreciate Susannah’s journey in this second novel.

Fingers crossed.

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