Characters Are People Too

on April 13, 2006

I’ve always believed that “character is story.” No matter what you’re writing, the characters make it or break it. A plot is just a series of events; the characters give the events depth and meaning.

I don’t write detailed character analyses. In the page proofs of THE PREY, I noticed Rowan Smith had three different eye colors. That was fixed 🙂 But I can’t write page one until I can see at least one character, until I know how she will react, how she moves, how she talks, how she interacts with other people . . . or if she doesn’t.

Rowan came to me almost fully formed. I could see her, hear her, and I knew how she would react to any given situation. There were many things I didn’t know. I didn’t know her real name, I just knew she wasn’t born Rowan Smith. I didn’t know exactly why she’d left the FBI, but I knew it had been something that rocked her world. I knew what happened to her family, but I wasn’t exactly sure how it happened.

In my head, I live the scene, become a character, reacting as she would react, saying what she would say. One side of my head is watching the scene–like a play. The other side of my head is in the scene, deep inside the character who’s driving the scene.

As I start writing, the beginnings are usually easy. I might not know enough about the characters, but I know enough about the story and their reactions to get it down on paper. Inevitably, as I write, I learn. The characters start doing things their own way. I only thought I knew how they would react.

Case in point: in SPEAK NO EVIL, the book I’m writing now, Sheriff Nick Thomas learns that his brother Steve is a murder suspect. He goes to San Diego to help him. No brainer, right? He was close to his brother growing up, he can’t imagine based on what he knows of his brother that he would kill anyone. And if something really had happened and Steve was guilty, Nick intended to stand by his brother, get him a good attorney, support him.

When Nick learns the victim had been raped, something happens. He still can’t imagine his brother is guilty, but he knows he couldn’t stand by him. Based on Nick’s past–specifically the Butcher investigation that is written about in THE HUNT–Nick has a deep, emotional reaction to rape. If Steve had brutalized a woman, Nick could see himself beating him up.

Intuitively, as I started writing, I knew this. But I didn’t quite know how Nick would react. After all, he is a trained law enforcement officer, as well as Steve is his only living family. He wants to be professional, methodical. And Nick isn’t an overly aggressive character. He’s the strong, silent type 🙂 But his past really plays a huge roll in how he looks at this crime, and how he looks at his brother as a suspect. When I wrote the scene where Nick learns of the rape, he took over. Next thing I know, enemies had become allies and the book took off in a slightly different direction than I had thought it would. But thinking back on that scene, I can see that it really couldn’t have played out any other way. Not and still be true to the characters.

Characters do that. Sometimes they react to situations and you say, okay, that makes sense. Sometimes they react and you have no idea why. You sit re-reading the last scene and wonder why in the world they did something. You wish they would just tell you, because you have no idea what’s going on in their head.

That happened in THE PREY. A friend gives Rowan a vase full of lilies. She has a vivid memory of her childhood. The memory is mostly sweet, until the end. Then Rowan picks up the vase and throws it across the room, screaming, “Who told you? Who told you?” to the friend who gave her the flowers.

Okay. I’ll admit, Rowan stunned me then. This seemed totally out of character. Rowan is a calm, serious, cool woman who has painstakingly buried her emotions because that’s the only way she can deal with her life. Why did she react so violently to the flowers?

Once I realized that the reaction was more “in-character” than I thought, the next scene came easy. While Rowan may act unemotional on the surface, I could see in the earlier chapters that she had hinted at her intense background on several occasions. Every incident was like a deep, underground earthquake you can’t feel, but which set up a chain reaction you can’t control until the right fault is effected at the right time and the earth moves. It was all there in her previous reactions, but because I was so in her character–including her own self-delusions that she had complete control over herself–I didn’t see the earthquake coming. When it arrived, it made sense. It had been set up–and I didn’t do it intentionally!

When I’m in my characters, really inside them, my story flows. I can’t stop writing. I had one of those days yesterday, where 19 pages poured out and it would have been more if life didn’t interrupt.

It’s when I start forcing them down paths I think they should go on that my book stops moving forward. Those are the scenes that I rewrite or cut because they aren’t in character.

If you remember that your characters are people too, that they will react in specific ways based on their backstory, that they have hope and fear, they love and hate, just like everyone else in the world, then you’re ahead of the curve. Give them a little leeway and see what happens.