I’ve got to quote my homie, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, to kick off this topic:
To show that this is not fanciful, in his letter to me of 6 May 1944 my father wrote: ‘A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien).’The Fall of Gondolin
I’ve drifted through life with this happening to me constantly. I have a very distinct memory of working on a novel in college, sitting in the lounge with my friends all around, headphones in and writing furiously. All of a sudden, I slammed my laptop closed. My friend looked over at me in concern. “My character just died!” I exclaimed as I got up in a huff, “He wasn’t supposed to!” I stormed away in a fit of rage, but not before I heard something that would constantly haunt me.
“Aren’t you the writer?”
My mom has asked me this over and over again. “You’re the one in control, though,” she’ll say, “You don’t have to kill the character.”
But I’m not killing characters. They’re dying.
In 2017, when I first embarked on Saintsverse, I told myself that my MC was straight. My roommate laughed at me. “We’ll see how long that lasts,” she said. Why? Because I was telling him that he was straight before I’d even met him. He hadn’t told me anything yet.
A week later, after I started writing, I texted her. “So, um, you were right?” I didn’t even have to specify. “LANDON’S GAY?!” she texted back, and then, because everyone knows my characters better than me, “He’s with Ezra, right?” She was right, and I was still trying to figure out what was wrong with me for not being able to control my story.
Today, the same thing happened again. I’ve had four chapters with a new character, but I haven’t really gotten to know him yet. He’s white, Jewish, blonde, very charming. Without even thinking, while I was writing his first real lines of the story, he started talking about his “abuelita.” I texted another friend, “It happened again. This new guy is Cuban, apparently, and I had no idea. Why do I have no control over these people?”
She said, “You know you are the writer, right? And these are made up people?!”
Am I, though? Are any of us actually in control when we write?
I started to feel that same kind of “what’s wrong with me” vibe. I feel bad when I can’t control my characters. I should be able to. I’m writing the story, not them. But in those first few chapters with them, they have the reigns. I set out with something in mind, and they usually change it.
But now, I’m thinking about Tolkien. He did it, too, and he had no control.
So, here’s my new thought. When I created this new character, I had an archetype in mind. I wanted him to fit a specific mold, but he didn’t have much going for him beyond that. As I wrote, as I slowly uncovered him, he moved beyond the archetype and into an actual human being. He took shape. He shed the name David Baum when he said his abuelita used to make him Cuban rice when he was gone for a long time and just come home, and he became Diego Reyes right in front of me.
Because that’s what real people do. We see them, and our instinct is to fit them into a category in our minds. So we do—until they start to take actual shape. Until we get to know them. Until we discover what makes their heart beat.
As a writer, I find myself living multiple lives. I’m inside several heads at once. I know so many different kinds of people. But in those first few moments, before we’ve really gotten to know each other, it’s like a first date. “Hi,” I say, uncertainly, “My name is Mary. What’s yours?”
“We’ll see,” they say, “I’m not sure I trust you yet.”
Because, in the end, that’s what it’s about. Until they trust me to write their story properly, I can’t trust the story to come out correctly. We have to learn together, Diego and I, until he feels comfortable saying, “Hi. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
I know this all sounds very fanciful, but honestly? This was me yesterday. I was feeling super uprooted. I forced myself through 1500 words of one project, and it was like pulling teeth. I forced myself through another 1500 on a different project, and though it was better, I was still dragging my feet. David (because he didn’t quite trust me yet) was finally stretching his legs a little. He’s been angry lately, which is definitely a reflection of me, but I didn’t know why. And then, out of the blue, he walks into the girls’ apartment, and something just clicked.
Zariah was meant to be cooking comfort food, and the second the door opened, I smelled jambalaya. “That is not nearly enough cayenne,” Diego said, crossing over to her, “My abuelita used to make this for me all the time.”
I couldn’t write for the rest of the day, what little was left of it. I was hopelessly distracted while teaching. It was occurring to me that not only did I misinterpret Diego’s character entirely, I also had no idea where this story was going. What the hell is this book about?
Halfway through class, it all fell into place.
Maybe I’m not in control, and maybe that’s a good thing. Because the second I let go, the rest comes together. David Baum was just supposed to be a side character, but Diego Reyes has a few things to say about that.