Saturday, April 13, 2013

Confessions in Writing... Getting to Know the Characters

Dad was still turning pages of the newspaper, but looking at me with an expectant expression. Eventually he said, “So… the back seat of your car is awfully full. You’re not planning on moving back in, are you?”
I looked at the table and found a spot to scrub with my thumb.
Mom had returned to the dishwasher and I could tell she was listening for my response, as well.
Dad looked at his watch. “I’d really like to talk about it now,” he said. “But I suppose it can wait till this evening if you are not ready.”

Tracy Million Simmons. Tiger Hunting (Kindle Locations 174-180)

In writing fiction, there is often this idea of author as god. It's your universe. You can do anything you want to, right? 

To some extent I suppose this is true. More often, however, characters plot their own paths. 

Jeni's father was very much a mystery to me when I started writing Tiger Hunting. I had a fairly good picture of her mother, but I wasn't entirely sure that her father would even be a part of the story. I really wasn't sure what kind of man he was. Was he a stern man? A man who was incapable of bonding with his children? Was he the kind of person who preferred his children as infants and continued to treat them as such once they were grown?

It sounds strange to say, but when I started writing the story, Jeni's father was a character that kind of stood in the doorway of the room for a while before stepping in to say, "Hey, I have a role in this story, too."

All I could do was keep writing to learn who he was.

A few pages later, Jenni and her father are having a heart-to-heart.

I looked up at him. He was studying my face, listening to me with both ears fully engaged in the way that only my father has ever paid attention to anything I’ve ever had to say. He wrapped his arms around me and held me there on the curb.
A Dodge City patrol car pulled to a stop in front of us. “Everything okay?” the officer asked.
“We’re fine, sir,” my father answered. I raised my head and smiled at the man so that he’d know I wasn’t in trouble. The policeman tipped an imaginary hat to us and drove off slowly. I felt him continuing to watch us from the rearview mirror.

Tracy Million Simmons. Tiger Hunting (Kindle Locations 928-933). 

This is the scene where I finally decided Jeni's father was a man I truly liked and respected. I began to recognize in him the finer qualities of the men I have known and loved in my own life -- my brothers, my uncles, my dad, and the fathers of some of my closest childhood friends.

In many ways, writing fiction is like exploring. You place a character on a page and prod it along. Eventually they take off on their own, and your job as a writer is to follow and record the important things along the way. Sometimes they don't take you very far. I have plenty of starts and half-finished stories to prove it. But some days, if you stay at it long enough, you start to understand where your characters might take you, what story they are trying to help you tell.

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