Monday, July 23, 2007

When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters

Have you ever characters ever completely surprised you? Have you ever been surprised by what they all of a sudden do, or what you all of a sudden do to them? I plotted out a novel last month and depressed myself by killing off the main character’s best friend. I don’t think I’ll ever get around to writing the novel (at least not soon) but it just didn’t work unless the friend died, but I didn’t want him to die! Struck down in the prime of his life by a careless driver just to make the main character realize his place in the world and how to seize it.

Yesterday night one of my characters (different story) told me she had cancer. I was shocked. I never saw that coming. She young. Really young for cancer. And she never told me before, never told anyone because she was trying to start a new life. She moved away to college in remission, so much more grown up than everyone else because she’d faced death but also so much more immature because she was dead set on experiencing everything without regard to consequence before she ran out of time. And after that move she never told anyone because she didn’t want to be the sick girl anymore, didn’t want to be cancer-girl. And she got her wish for years. But now time’s up and she doesn’t know how she wants people to treat her. Certainly, her family’s there for her, but what about all these friends, these romances, this life I’ve created for her – what about them? Does she tell them? Does she let them in on the secret that she’s been someone else for the past years, someone not herself, that she’s been someone she wanted to be someone who wasn’t cancer-girl?

Some writers have trouble letting bad things happen to their characters. Or letting things bad enough happen to their characters. These writers inevitably suffer from boring prose. Not me. Apparently I thrust my characters right into the fray, right into the biggest struggle there is: that of life and death. Where other’s tentativeness causes them constipation my tenaciousness causes me heartache. I see now why some writers have trouble letting bad things, truly bad things, happen to their characters. We all like our characters and doing this … well, it hurts.

I think about the best friend that I killed off in the earlier story and I am reminded of Stranger than Fiction. It’s enough to creep an author out the thought that it may all somehow overlap with realty. But until I get that precipitous phone call I’ll let my characters keep surprising me. And when they tell me these things I will write them out, no matter how much it pains me.

Highly Recommended