Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The kid stays in the book


By PJ Parrish

Tell me if this ever happens to you:

You're typing along, and you're hearing the voices in your head. It's a couple of your characters, chatting away. And you find your fingers flying just trying to keep up so you can record it all.

But sometimes -- and this doesn't happen very often -- I am typing away and I actually SEE people come onto the screen in my head. These are people I have not summoned, characters I have not accounted for, and it's like, wtf, who are you? You don't belong in this story. Somebody throw this bum off my set!

But they don't leave. They hang around. And they start whispering, "forget them, tell my story."

The first time I got visited by one of them was during the writing of our third book, "Thicker Than Water." This is a story about a dirtbag con who murdered a girl and twenty years later gets out of prison and kills his defense attorney. His son Ronnie hires our hero Louis Kincaid to clear his father's name. I was writing a scene in which Ronnie was talking to Louis and suddenly, in my head I heard the screech of air brakes. My fingers froze over the keyboard, but I said, okay...

So I wrote that Louis heard a school bus braking outside. A second later, a boy was in my head, whispering to me. But he was so sullen and closed, I couldn't hear what he was saying. I didn't like him. I almost ignored him. But then I gave in and wrote him into the scene. Suddenly, Ronnie had a son named Eric.

The kid hung around for 300 pages, moving in and out of the plot like a small ghost. I didn't have a friggin' clue why he was there except to make the dirtbag con, his grandfather, look even meaner. I kept wondering if Eric was just what I call a clutter-character, and that I needed to heed Elmore Leonard's famous advice to "cut out the stuff readers skip over." But I let Eric stay. Then, on page 363, Eric said something to me that changed the whole book. He said:

"Can a kid get in trouble for something he knows?"

Damn. It came together in a blinding flash, the whole key to the book. This kid was it. We had to go back and redo the bread-crumb trail of clues to make it work. But this kid held the final great twist of the plot in his hands. And without realizing it, for hundreds of pages, I had been giving Eric motivation and layers that set up everything for the ending. Or maybe Eric had been giving them to me.

I now call this serendipity. I have learned to welcome these intruding wraiths. I have learned to trust them. Because they are the ones you didn't build. They are the ones who came on their own. They are the ones that bring life to your story.

I just have to learn to listen more carefully when they come a callin'.

16 comments:

  1. I wish I've had an experience like that but it's never happened to me. I have intentionally added a character to a story mid-stream whom I hadn't put in the synopsis. But people haven't popped up and sung to me like they have to you. Sounds like your subconscious is at work in these instances, and yes, they are signs to be heeded.

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  2. I know what you mean, PJ, though I don't attribute it to the characters themselves having any sort of own volition. To me, it's the voice of creativity making wanton connections to our past, ideas, illusions and emotions, right behind our backs so to speak, nudging our storytelling efforts into different directions. It's a coming together of meaning with craft, in ways that are very much peculiar to each writer in part.

    It's also a truly amazing realization, when you suddenly see your story in a new light because of a detail carrying the condensed meaning of all the things you excluded from the story as you started. :)

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  3. Serendipity is a good word for it, Kris. I tend to think of it simply as magic. It has happened to my co-writer and me a number of times in each of our novels. An unplanned character or, more frequently for us, an object or fact that seems to come out of nowhere only to be explained later to our surprise and, hopefully, the reader’s. In my opinion, this is truly the mystery of creative writing when the muse or whatever we call it appears out of the ether and kindly takes us along for the ride.

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  4. I love your story, Kris, because it's an example of characters "leading" the writing. It sounds like free-flowing creativity at its best. I also like the way you let the character's potential develop as you went along--you didn't force it. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. Very cool. I've never had a whole character pop in like that before, but twists can surprise me where I have to thread in clues from the beginning. These twists usually come from listening to every nuance of a character's voice & my willingness to question their motivations until everything feels rock solid. The books that don't come as easily can force you deeper into your characters' heads to pull out all the stops. It's a great thing to experience, but I absolutely love your explanation in this post. A whole kid. Very cool.

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  6. My characters are recalcitrant union workers. They show up when I call them, but then they just sit there until I tell them what to do. Half the time, they don't even acknowledge me. They mostly talk among themselves. If they let me listen, I'll take notes.

    Some days, when I'm not sure what I want them to do, they'll mock me. They won't contribute a single thing--until I'm asleep. Or in the shower. Then they just barge in and give me just a little flash of inspiration before retreating again.

    Kris, I don't want to be burden, but if your characters have some time, I'd be honored to make mine available for some kind of team building exercise. Just, you know, think about it.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  7. Those are the elusive but most awesome moments in writing--when your barriers are down and creativity flows and allows people, events, and things to step right into your story.

    It doesn't happen often for me, but when it does, I know I have truly let myself relax and write and let the creativity flow.

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  8. I'm in the middle of reworking the beginning of a story to strengthen it for a character than came in almost mid-way... At first I said no too... I certainly didn't need another character, let alone another wise acre character in the story. I was wrong. When I looked at him and said "hey, so where have you been bub?" He showed me and I went "Holy Cow!" I was so into my main 1st person character I hadn't seen him lurking there, much like my character hadn't. But by golly - there he was, there the entire time - in the shadows.

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  9. Nancy, I think it's interesting that this DOESN'T happen to you in that it illustrates the fact that each of us finds our own unique way. It's magical.

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  10. Jordan,
    Re "a whole kid." I don't have kids in real life. I think this is the closest I want to come. :)

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  11. John,
    My current characters are friggin mutes. They are holding back on me for some reason. Or maybe my antennae is not up far enough. Whatever the reason, as we are starting the newest book no one's talking. I am going on a long vacation next week so I am hoping my brain relaxes enough so I can hear them.

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  12. Very interesting. And good to know I'm not alone on that phenomenon. Had a character like that in my first novel, who started little then became a pivotal guy, then forced his way into novel 3 and 4 and a short, and a novella and has worked his way into #5 as well. Never the lead in the novels, but always there in the background making things even more interesting.

    What do you attribute such living characters to? Over active imagination? Lack of sleep causing delirium? Other substances introduced into the brainial causeway?

    My wife says in my case I probably need an adjustment to my meds.

    She doesn't know I don't actually take meds, and just used that excuse to avoid explaining certain behaviours she's noticed over the past couple decades.

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  13. Basil,
    Good question. Spouses often don't quite get what we are up to, do they? They try, poor things, but I think they think we are crazy at times.

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  14. Sorry I'm late to the party again, as I've been out in the woods and off the grid (OTG).

    This one time, the door opened in my scene room and in walked - WHOA HOLD THE PHONE - a full-blown character who was on a mission and everybody get out the way. It went on for quite a while: me writing feverish and trying to keep up.

    After running out of steam, I'm shaking my head and couldn't quite believe what happened.

    This sort of thing never happened again, which is probably for the best. Stuff/characters just bubble up from time to time and surprise you.

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