Tuesday, August 11, 2015

When Characters Withhold Information

by Marjorie Brody

I usually know my characters well before I begin to write. Certainly I know what they want, what they fear, what their major flaw is, and what changes they will make in the life of the story, i.e., their character arc. But recently, I met a very stubborn protagonist. I should probably capitalize that word Stubborn. I could probably capitalize every letter of that word. STUBBORN.

I’d been working with this character for some time now and yet, it seemed she was avoiding me. I knew the secret that kicked off her adventure and kept her driven, but it seemed as if something was missing. That there was something deeper going on—the secret beneath the secret—and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure it out. And I needed to figure it out in order to create the emotional impact I desired with the story.

I decided to interview her.

Interviewing characters is not an uncommon practice for authors. The author asks the character questions about his or her personality, and/or desires, and/or anything story related—or not story related. The process allows the author’s subconscious to surface and reveal important information not previously known. It’s not a technique I’ve had to use often, but I was tired of this particular character giving me the slip. She knew something I didn’t and, by heaven, I was going to force it out of her. After all, didn’t I have a right to know her deepest, darkest, most self-protected secret if I was going to write her story? Didn’t she owe me an explanation? I was her creator, for crying out loud.

So, I asked her what she really wanted, really, really wanted and pushed her to go beneath the surface. I confronted her about why she was not allowing me to understand her at the level I needed in order to complete the story. What happened surprised me.

She accused me of probing where I had no business probing and challenged me with, “You ever think maybe I don’t want my story made public?” Which naturally had me ask why she didn’t want people to know her story, what was she afraid of? To which she went on the attack stating she wanted to forget her past and I had no right to force her to remember.

Standoff time.

I’d invested so much time on this character. How dare she. I mean, the story was powerful as it was, but I wanted to move it to another, more profound, level. And this character was holding out on me, I just knew it.

I threatened to get a new protagonist if she didn’t cooperate.

She attacked my goal for writing this story. Then attacked my most vulnerable writing insecurity.

I accused her of being mean and hitting below the belt.

She accused me of not facing the fact that maybe she was mean. Deep-down. A lot meaner than I’d ever imagined. “You willing to write about me now?”

To prove her point, she tossed out a grenade that blew me off my feet: somebody else killed the antagonist.

For those of you who are writers, you understand the implication of this revelation. The protagonist, and only the protagonist, is allowed to defeat the antagonist.

My character was forcing me to rewrite the entire story.

I told my character that I’d get back to her in the morning, but I let a week of passive-aggressive avoidance go by. I simmered with her revelation. And then I understood. My character did give me what I asked of her. The secret under her secret was that she believed someone else killed the protagonist. So whoa, baby. Do I have a surprise for her. Let her think what she wants. I’ll show her who’s the story master.

So, lessons learned. My characters can help me write their stories. And, I can be as STUBBORN as they.

What happens when characters hold out on you? In what ways do you allow your characters to tap into your subconscious?

Marjorie Brody is an award-winning author and Pushcart Prize Nominee. Her short stories appear in literary magazines and the Short Story America Anthology, Vols. I, II and III. Her debut psychological suspense novel, TWISTED, was awarded an Honorable Mention at the 2013 Great Midwest Book Festival and won the Texas Association of Authors 2014 Best Young Adult Fiction Book Award. TWISTED is available in digital and print at http://tinyurl.com/cvl5why or http://tinyurl.com/bqcgywlMarjorie invites you to visit her at www.marjoriespages.com.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Sometime our characters just have a mind of their own--no use fighting.

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