The joys and perils of letting the characters drive
This is far from the first draft I’ve written of The Shadow of the Sun. I have known the story, the heart and meat of it, since the first draft; subsequent drafts have been about refining my narrative techniques and the telling of the tale. Oh, yeah, and the perennial worldbuilding.
The story is vastly more robust than earlier drafts, this time around. And unlike the first and second drafts, this time I’m using an outline. I’ve planned all my plot points and the stops on my characters’ journeys. In fact there is a segment in the middle, which I am just coming to the end of, which contains plot points which I planned not to advance the plot of this novel, but to set things up two novels hence.
That’s planning. Yeah, I have gotten good at the plot-planning thing.
What I forgot to think about this time (and there always seems to be something I forgot to think about) is what those plot points, which I need to execute now in service of the story two volumes hence, would *mean* to the characters who have to live them. Sounds elementary, doesn’t it? But I was focused on making my plot do what it needed to do.
It will surprise no one but the writer to learn that my characters reacted quite strongly to the two curves I threw them, here in the middle of the journey. Not only did I have to stop and wrestle with the chapter in which those plot points occurred; now it’s derailing what the characters had been supposed to accomplish in the next chapter. Because, of course, it’s all immediate to them, and they don’t have access to the outline.
Personally, I hate it when characters, whether in books or film, clearly do things because that’s what was in the outline. Everything goes flat when writers allow themselves to fall into that trap. Fortunately I’ve learned to feel when what I’ve planned doesn’t match what my characters would naturally do, say, feel in that situation: usually as I’m writing the scene in question. The challenge of writing fiction with robust characters is honoring their genuine reactions while still advancing the plot.
It never gets dull. In fact, as I wind my way through the I’m-afraid-to-even-count-how-many-times-I’ve-been-through-this draft of this novel, I find it is the surprises that keep me going.
And the characters. It’s all about the characters. If it weren’t, I could write much shorter.
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