By Jonathunder via Wikimedia Commons
I admire writers who plot and plan and claim complete control over their work and still produce believable, realistic characters and situations. It’s not a way I’ve ever operated with my fiction. Things such as academic articles or commercial presentations have to be carefully structured, so organising the material before you link it all together is essential. But, in fiction, if you set restraints on your characters before you even let them loose, it seems to me that you prevent them becoming who they are. I have no idea why fictional characters seem to have an existence independent of the person who created them, but they do. A writer on a panel I chaired once summed it up by saying ‘You have to give your characters room to dance’.
I’m not suggesting that novels are actually written by the characters. You need to know where they’re going, what their role in the overall scheme is, the points at which they’re going to clash or combine to build the narrative, so you manipulate them into the contexts you need. But, once there, they may come up with things which seem to come from them rather than from you. A particularly nasty policeman in one of my novels was angry after getting a bollocking from his boss. To my surprise, he went back to his office, reached for the bottom drawer of his desk and took out an iron bar which he kept there to vent his frustrations. He then bent and straightened it until he felt better.
But the reason I’m writing this is that what started as a way of avoiding writing a blog has rebounded on me. Back in February, instead of writing something new, I posted the opening of a romantic parody I’d written a while ago. It was supposed to be a self-contained thing which was just a spoof of the genre (and, before fans of romance complain, I should say that I write parodies of all sorts of genres, and they’re aimed at making readers laugh, not at undermining their targets). But a couple of friends wanted to know what happened next.
It seemed an enjoyable way to write another blog so in March I developed the scene a little further, whereupon other friends wanted yet more. Indeed, Griselda commented that she felt 'TOTALLY caught up in Letitia's romantic imaginings', and Umberto 'couldn't wait for Leticia's next move' - which was very flattering and gratifying.
But the really strange thing is that I, too, started wondering what might happen next. The characters, who started as stereotypes, had become themselves and they’re drawing me back to them, almost demanding my attention. It’s as if they resent being left in suspension. I suppose it would be easy to write a third, concluding instalment which resolved all the issues - just to get rid of them. But I suspect that they wouldn’t be satisfied with that. They’ve started to let me see who they are, they’ve got attitudes, hopes, inner conflicts.
Damn them. They had no right to have all those. They were gags, puppets, elements I was going to manipulate to get a few laughs. How weird to think I’m a sort of social worker, with responsibilities to these figments of my (and the readers’) imaginations. But that’s how it feels.
Of course, the feeling is multiplied several-fold when it's a 'real' novel. I had to write six different endings to The Likeness, for example, before my female lead was satisfied with how various dilemmas were resolved. She wasn't being a Prima Donna, she was just being herself. And she knew what readers wanted.