“You’re doing it all wrong. Here is where you start the story.”
It took me one shocked moment to know who was yelling. It was Eleanor, an imperious old woman rapidly fading into dementia. Eleanor is a major character in my novel in progress.
I kept walking fast on my usual route. The day was sunny, hot for May. Cars passed, but there were no other walkers in the middle of the day.
“I was beautiful once.”
Her voice was wistful now. At first I was relieved that the voice was only inside my head, but then I panicked. Isn’t hearing voices inside your head a key sign that you are losing your mind?
“All I ever wanted to be was an artist. When that didn’t work…well, I made a different life for myself.”
Now Eleanor sounded bitter. I heard regret.
Over the remaining half hour of my walk, she told me how to start the story (yes, she was right). She also told me about the night when she broke the hearts of everyone she loved and who loved her.
Over dinner that night, I told my husband about hearing Eleanor during my walk. He gave me a sharp look. I assured him that I knew that she wasn’t a real person, that she was a character in my story. He made a tight smile and suggested that I might want to keep the talking characters in my head to myself.
The next time I was out on that walk, I invited Eleanor to speak up again. Silence. She wasn’t available. So, I walked, plotted, and drafted new scenes.
A few weeks later on that same walk, I heard another character start his own story. He was gruff with me, but kind because he wanted his part of the story to be accurate.
While I don’t take notes or record what my characters share, I do think long and hard about what they have revealed. They are real people to me, persons to respect. They have told me that there is no such thing as a straight-out antagonist or even protagonist. Every single character is the protagonist in their own life story; they are not foils or mirrors or anything other than themselves. What another character makes of their relationship and actions is the business of that character. I was taught that in life there is My Business, Your Business, and God’s Business. It works for characters and plot and themes as well.
In the blazing fury that is my annual NANOWRIMO project, I was startled when a woman reaches into a refrigerator for butter and pulls out a set of chilled sterling cufflinks. Newly home after a rocky separation from her husband, she knows not to say a word about it to him, puts the cufflinks back where she found them, and locates the butter to make dinner.
That character acted up early in my NANOWRIMO adventures. From her, I learned to be receptive to what the characters want to share and what happens next. They tease me and tell me to try to keep up with them. We all get along a lot better that way – and it’s a whole lot more fun to write those stories.