Jonty · Pony Jumpers series · writing

When characters write themselves

WCWT bannerHave you ever watched a TV series and found yourself rooting for a couple that aren’t the ones who are “supposed” to be together? That despite the storyline that the writers have planned, the chemistry between the actors (or lack thereof) creates a dissonance for the viewer and they lose interest in whether or not they will end up together, because in actuality the prospect of two different characters uniting is far more entertaining? (Dawson’s Creek is one such example. Veronica Mars is another. I’m sure you can think of more.)

This gets particularly awkward when the couple you’re rooting for do get together, but you just know that the writers don’t want it to end up that way. That their pairing is supposed to be a bump in the road, or the-one-along-the-way on the path towards true love, not the happily ever after, and you have to watch as they throw obstacle after obstacle in their way…

Well, the reason I’m waffling on about this is because it just happened to me. Only I wasn’t watching a TV series…I was writing a novel.

As I finished Triple Bar, I knew I had to get the first two chapters of Four Faults written before it was released, so that it could tag along at the end and (hopefully) inspire readers to look forward to the next in the series. This one was particularly important for two reasons: a) readers didn’t know Tess nearly as well already as they had done for Katy and Susannah in books 2 and 3, when I’d formerly employed this tactic, and b) I was about to go on a three week holiday to America and I knew that it was going to be a longer wait than usual between books, so I wanted readers’ appetites whetted.

So I started writing Four Faults. I wanted to set the story on a big working sheep farm, because I hadn’t done that yet. I love farming and the rural lifestyle, and my goal is always to give people reading from overseas an insight into the New Zealand way of life, and to give the Kiwi readers something they’ll recognise. I put Tess on the top of a hill, looking out over the family farm. I journeyed there in my mind as I wrote, watching as Tess patted her pony, swigged some water, talked to her dog, then looked back to see someone riding up behind her…

Sidenote: When I started writing Four Faults, I was chatting to a friend on Facebook and I mentioned that this book had another “farm boy” in it. (She’d just been saying how much she likes Alec, from the Clearwater Bay series, who is your quintessential farm boy.) She responded enthusiastically, and asked his name. I said “Bayard”. She approved. I went offline and continued to write.

As well as using a farm setting, I also wanted to throw a bit more of a romance into it. I knew that the main story points for Four Faults weren’t necessarily pleasant ones – Tess is being bullied into riding a pony she’s afraid of, her sister is being nasty to her, her friends are mostly oblivious to her, and then Hayley starts having unexplained seizures, and everything is turned completely upside down. So I needed something that would lighten the story, that would make you smile and make Tess happy, so that she didn’t spend the whole book being pushed around by other people and/or wallowing in self-pity (which nobody likes reading about, no matter how true to life it is).

But I struck a roadblock really early on, because Bayard wouldn’t play ball.

Often when I write a book, I start with a rough outline of a character – their basic looks (hair, skin and eye colour, physique, etc) and their essential personality – then build on it as I go, learning more about the characters as I write. Because I write the Pony Jumpers books so fast, and because the first two chapters of the books are always written well before the rest of the story, I’m writing those initial scenes completely off the cuff, without much prior planning. I’m also usually writing fast, because I’ve got the previous book finished and I want to get it released sooner rather than later!

Writing the first two chapters of Double Clear was easy. I already knew Katy well, as she’d not only been around since Dare to Dream but I had other stories already squirreled away in my head with her name on them. I was familiar with her personality and her lifestyle and the story I was going to tell. (Well, mostly. Katy definitely surprised me when I wrote Double Clear, but I’ll explain more on that when I have written book 6, I think.) Susannah was obviously another well-known character, if not well-liked, and she was really interesting to write. Both of those girls flowed easily off my fingertips, surprising and impressing me by turns, but never giving me pause or making me wonder if I was telling a story that would be true to them and worthwhile reading.

But I got myself into a pickle when it came time to write the first two chapters of Four Faults, because Bayard wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do. And I wanted Tess to be equally frustrated by him, to be trying to get his attention because maybe he was just oblivious to her and I could work with that, but nope. She wasn’t remotely romantically inclined towards him either. Bayard had been her best friend for a long time and she had never thought about him differently.

The pair of them were doing my head in. Alongside that, another strand of the story that I’d been planning to write, which had sounded awesome in my head, was not transferring itself to paper at all. I couldn’t make it work, so I removed it entirely. Problem was, that was supposed to be the part of the story that helped Tess out and made her a braver rider, which was what the book as a whole had to achieve. So now I was really stuck, and getting grumpier and more frustrated by the minute.

I shut my laptop and cleaned the kitchen. It’s amazing how sometimes doing something simple and menial can help. I was home alone, so I was talking to myself (I do this constantly – at home, in the car, while riding my horse…it is my favourite and most successful way to come up with characters and storylines). And out of the blue came the idea to have Tess realise that she liked Bayard, because there was someone else trying to get her attention, and only in first accepting and then rejecting that would she and Bayard see what was lacking between them, and close that distance.

Jonty sprang into my mind almost immediately, his name already picked out, confident and sure of his proper place in the story. I knew his personality at once, although his physical appearance flickered for a while before it resolved itself vaguely in my mind. (I didn’t care much about that anyway – it’s only important so that I don’t change his hair or eye colour halfway through. I never bother too much with physical descriptors, preferring to leave it up to my readers to use their own imagination and preferences). I finished washing the floor and went back to my room to meet Jonty and introduce him to the story. Opened the laptop, mulled him over in the ten or so minutes it took my old computer to boot up Word, and threw him into the story.

In those first two chapters, Jonty appears very briefly, standing in the doorway of his house in a pair of rugby shorts and nothing else. He waves to Tess, who ignores him and rides away.

Done. Right?

Not quite. I’d also dedicated a page or so to explaining who Jonty was and why he was there. I established that Tess didn’t like him because he was cheeky and gregarious and hung around when he wasn’t wanted. He had a pony called Taniwha that he used to ride when he was younger, and three little sisters that he complained about, and he lived in a rough house because his family were poor and his dad lacked ambition to better their circumstances.

That was the Jonty I was planning on writing. He was going to turn up and annoy Tess, who would end up riding with him over the farm on a regular basis (because reasons), and he would help her to overcome some of her fears by simply challenging her more than Bayard did. Tess would start feeling braver and more confident in her own life as her confidence grew with Misty, and start finding Jonty more appealing than she did before. At this point, Bay had to swing into action and get a little jealous, and Tess would roll her eyes and fend him off until Jonty did something that put her into danger, at which point Bayard would be there to pick up the pieces, and she would discover that she liked him better anyway…

That was the rough outline. I was prepared to make changes along the way – I always do, no matter how thorough or vague my outlines are. But I was not prepared for Jonty, because he clearly never read a word of it.

Jonty never once did what I expected him to do. He rewrote his own character at a rate of knots, and no matter how hard I tried to make Tess get snarky with him, or for him to annoy her, he would not stop flirting and she would not stop fancying him. And Bayard was just sitting in the corner, switching from being oblivious to outright sulking, but never doing a darn thing to try and change the situation.

So the story changed. I gave up trying to make Jonty into the character I’d first seen him as, and let the reins fall loose. Tess dropped back a little, unsure, but Jonty took the bit and ran with it. He knew who he was and what he wanted out of life, and his calm self-confidence and empathetic approach helped Tess exactly the way I wanted it to in the first place. Bayard went from being my intended romantic hero to shuffling around in the background, which irritated me for a while – but I got over it. (I’ve got plans for him down the road, don’t worry. He’ll be back.)

Some planned scenes stayed in but were adapted. When Jonty’s recklessness led to Tess getting hurt, Bayard didn’t swoop in to rescue her. Well, he tried. But he was well and truly fended off, because that scene had turned into something else altogether…

Four Faults ended up being a very different story from the one I’d planned to write. I wonder if this is why it ended up being a lot longer than the previous Pony Jumper books (which clocked in at 31k, 37k and 38k respectively – Four Faults was 55k by the time it was done!). It just took me that much longer to get my head around these characters, and I knew that the slow-burn between Tess and Jonty had to be slow enough to make it count. No insta-love around here!

But I am so happy with the end result. Jonty is one of my favourite characters, and he helped me build Tess into the person I wanted her to be. It’s so strange how easily what you thought you knew when you started can change. For me, that’s a big challenge of writing the Pony Jumpers series, because often even I have no idea where it’s going when I start. And it’s not over yet, because before I could release Four Faults, I had to write the first two chapters of Five Stride Line and that did the same damn thing.

Once again, I had bullet points. I had story and I knew where it was going, and that much of it did. AJ was familiar territory, as were Katy and Anders and Alexia, because I’d written them all before and I wasn’t anticipating any surprises. But I had another new character to bring into the story, and like Jonty before him, Harry ended up being nothing like I’d originally expected him to be.

But you know what? That’s a good thing. It’s a really good thing, actually, because sometimes when you let characters have a looser rein, they fill out into real people. They go from being an idea (or an ideal, which is a death trap in my opinion – idealised characters are dull to read about) to being a person, and now that Harry is ten times the smart aleck that I ever thought he’d be, the progression of his storyline is going to work even better than I’d imagined. So I’m excited.

I’m also excited to go back to Jonty and Tess later on, and I’m excited to move forward with Katy’s storyline too, and Susannah’s. I have rough outlines for several more novels, planning out each character’s complete arc, and all of the books so far are steadily building towards them. I’m sure to hit a few road bumps along the way, when more characters refuse to do what they’re supposed to, but you know what?

I can’t wait to find out where they end up.

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2 thoughts on “When characters write themselves

  1. I was wondering what was up with Bayard! I couldn’t figure out why he was there, other than to sulk in the background and make Tess realize she couldn’t relate to any of her friends, even the farm boy she thought was her closest friend. I am glad Jonty pushed him out though! I really enjoyed the relationship between Tess and Jontt, and I love how he rides Copper (I hope we get to see him give Copper some confidence – maybe he can take him eventing? Or is there foxhunting in NZ? I thought one of your books mentioned hunting over the winter).

    This was another great installment, I am anxiously awaiting the next!

    (Oh, and I never read the additional chapters provided at the ends of books. The suspense is too much for me; I like to read a book all together. So I have no idea who Harry might be, but I can’t wait to find out!)

    1. Thanks Anne! Yes the problem with writing the first two chapters before the rest of the book is that sometimes I write myself into a wee bit of a corner…having introduced Bayard I knew I had to do something with him, and unfortunately he got a little bit of the short straw in this book. Poor Bay…he’s a good guy really, just a little overprotective at times. As I said above, there’ll be more of him later on, when readers eventually will find out what’s going on between him and Jonty (that’ll be in book 8).

      We do have hunting in NZ over the winter months (May – July) but we don’t have foxes so hunt hares instead. There are certainly plenty of hunts in the area where Tess “lives”.

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