As I read Reavis Wortham’s post last Saturday on how his characters evolve in his head, I marveled at how vastly different our writing processes are. I often tell people that my characters are all day workers: they hang out at the social hall drinking beer and having fun until I call on them to do something. Then, they’re like, “Don’t ask me what I should do, Mr. Writer Man. This is your gig, dude. I just do what I’m told.”
My stories are told from a very close third-person point of view. I don the character like a costume and and live the story from the inside. I know what the character wants to do (or wants to stop, depending), and then I go on the great pretend. I document what that scene’s POV character sees, feels, and smells. Somehow, through that process, I become close to those characters, and they come alive for me.
In any given scene, then, the most important choice is assigning POV ownership. It becomes especially critical when two or more POV characters are interacting. While they all can speak and emote, only one of them can feel. The POV character knows that his heart is racing and that his face feels flushed, but he can only observe or surmise that the other characters in the scene appear to feel emotion.
I’ve written in this space before that I have never described my character Jonathan Grave in any detail. In part, this is because if he is in the scene, he is 99% likely to be the owner of the action. As I write this, I have no idea what my facial expression is as I type, but I do know that my back is sore from where I tweaked it the other day. If we were having this discussion live and in person, you wouldn’t know about the twinges of pain unless I mentioned them.
As for plot, I have to know where I am going before I start–or at least before I get too deeply into the story. What I discover along the way is the most fun route to take me there. It’s like knowing you want to drive from DC to Los Angeles, but not knowing till somewhere in Indiana whether you want to take the southern route or the northern route. Or, maybe you want to park at a train station and finish the trip by rail.
Because I write on tight deadlines, there’s no such thing as a mistake. If I push Jonathan and his crew into a corner that I shouldn’t have, I don’t have the luxury of going back and rewriting a week’s worth of work. Instead, I climb into the POV character’s skin, and I figure out the solution from behind his or her eyes. And you know what? Some of the most poignant, memorable scenes in my books grow out of those “mistakes.” It happens frequently enough, in fact, that I’ve come to trust that the subconscious somehow knows what has to happen, and if I relax, I’ll get there.
Which is good, because those lazy-ass characters love to chuckle at me and guzzle suds and eat wings while they watch me try to figure things out.
All of this harkens back to my oft-stated and heartfelt belief that there are no rules to this writing thing. What works, works. Hard stop. I don’t understand the need to outline and do character sketches before I start, but if they work for another writer–and I know such things work for many other writers–God bless them.
But here’s some food for thought: If you are an outliner or character sketcher, and you find yourself plagued by writer’s block, consider the possibility that your outline is the problem. Perhaps your preproduction vision of the story is not the best one, and that your real problem is trying to join parts that aren’t sized properly, or have simply fallen out of fashion. Try putting the outline away and going on a great pretend.