It's All About Character
I’ve been making up characters for as long as I can remember. I’m an only child. I came from households where both parents worked, and I had to find ways to entertain myself. I’ve always watched a lot of television, devoured a ridiculous number of books, and there has never been a time when my imagination has been quiet or still. It’s much like an energetic four-year-old, rarely settling down and chattering to me about five or six different plotlines and ideas all at once. It’s created a lot of characters over the years, and so many of them have become good and steady companions.
I wrote a lot before I was finally published in December of 2012. While I was in middle school and high school, there was poetry. That kind of rhyme and verse never happened when I was happy or content. Poetry was the way the sad, the lonely and the afraid escaped my brain and body. Some of it was good, most of it was mediocre at best. A lot of it was downright awful, but it served an important purpose. I wasn’t world-building back then. I wasn’t creating characters and storylines. I was just trying to cope. Mind dumps and emotional purging is what I needed, and short verses poured out of me and onto the paper. At that time in my life, I lived for figure skating, prime time TV and eighties music. Okay, I still live for eighties music, but I can’t remember the last time I penned a poem.
I had a little gray electric typewriter that came in a carrying case with a handle. I loved that typewriter. I had three or four font wheels, and the ribbon came in different colored cartridges. My favorite was navy blue. I clicked the keys on that little machine until my fingertips had worn away the letters and there was a shiny dip on the right side of the space bar. When I was without my typewriter, I would fill notebook after notebook with bits and pieces of stories, dialogue, ideas and snippets of dreams I had, my handwriting consistent and neat, flowing through my favorite fine-tip ballpoint pens.
The first thing I wrote that was large enough to be considered an actual book never had a title. The disintegrating folder I still have that held the various typed and handwritten chapters had three words written in black marker across the top of it. David & Allie. Those were the main character’s names, and I still remember exactly what that pair looked like in my head. The setting for the chapters I wrote was a town near a large mountain lake. It was romantic but mysterious and scary. I remember the things about their personalities and physical characteristics that drew me to them. In just the last week or so, I’ve decided to resurrect this story, so I won’t give anything away about the plot. I will tell you that I’ve designed the cover. It also has a title. On the Lake of Secrets. I know these two characters will lose their names and gain different ones. I don’t know what they’ll be yet, but this duo was the one that really made me want to be a novelist. Their story needs to be told.
So, why haven’t I written this book yet? I’ve published eleven novels and written many more pieces of stories, and yet I’m just getting back to this one, my first, almost thirty years after I began. I’ve thought about it a lot, actually, and the answer—at least for me—is simple. It just wasn’t time for this story to be told yet.
My characters always wait for me. Some of them, like David and Allie, wait a very long time. If you aren’t a writer, it may seem strange that I speak about these characters as if they are real people. It’s hard to understand, I suppose. A non-writer may argue that I am the one who creates each and every one of them, therefore I should know everything there is to know about them and how they will act. That person couldn’t be more wrong.
There is a wonderful thing that takes place for me during the process of writing a book. I get to know each and every character of a novel. I learn about the things they like and don’t like. This one has a fondness for whiskey, this one would die to save their loved ones, and this one is a cold-hearted killer. I get to see how they work. I see physical tics, the pattern of their speech, the tone of their voice and their moral ground. It’s a process, and throughout that process, I get a feel for how they’ll react to certain situations. I become so acquainted with them that I can anticipate what they’ll say and what they’ll do.
Until I don’t.
If I’m lucky, the characters will take off on their own and do whatever they damn well please, leaving me to chase after them, typing as fast as my fingers will go to keep up with them and find out what will happen next.
God, I love it when that happens. Fortunately for me, it happens a lot.
In January, I published an anthology with several other authors called Grey’s Harbor. It’s about a fictional little town on the coast of North Carolina. We all helped build the community, gave it a colorful history, and populated it with a cast of quirky characters. A few of the authors that contributed to this anthology have written offshoot novels. The novel I’m writing now is a Grey’s Harbor story called Harbor Song. This book belongs to a character named Izzy Edwards, and she demanded her story be told. There is always a character—usually more than one or two at a time—who is taking up a lot of headspace and talking above the din that perpetually lives in my brain. I hear David and Allie in there right now, and there are a few others chattering in the background, but none of them are nearly as loud as Izzy. She took a bit of a backseat in Grey’s Harbor. She wasn’t happy about it, but I forced her to sit back and let it happen. She’s all out of patience now, and Harbor Song belongs to her.
My characters get under my skin. They always have. I believe they come to me when I need them the most. They poke and prod me, yell and fight for my attention when their voices most need to be heard. Sometimes I argue with them, plead for them to behave, but they always seem to know better than I what they need to do. They still entertain me, but some of them have done a lot more than that. Some of them have even saved me.