Thursday, June 29, 2017

When Characters Go Rogue: On Listening to the Story

In Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, she talks about being a servant of the work, about listening closely and relinquishing control. She says the novel you sit down to write will be very different from the novel you write.
            She also shares a story of a time when a character appeared in her novel that she had never intended to be there. She decided to go with it, trusting her subconscious had introduced him for a reason. This led to her re-writing a nearly completed manuscript, but the end result was better than the original she had planned.
            I am glad she understands.
            I am glad she has written about the abandon I’ve often felt in writing.
            I’m glad she knows what it’s like when characters go rogue.

            I had this character who I had planned to introduce in my story. As page after page of my writing brought me closer to him, I grew excited. While I knew my main characters were about to meet him, they had no idea the journey I was taking them on would lead to a dark place where they would find the person who would take them on their next adventure.
            They meet. I am so very excited for them to meet. I am so very excited to meet him, too. I’d been looking forward to his appearance for so long.
            But then he began to do some things I had not intended. He began to take over the story, making choices that were not in the original plan. He was not doing what I wanted him to do. In fact, he was being downright rebellious.
            In turn, he was affecting my other characters. He was rubbing up against the people they were supposed to be, causing them to react and grow and change in uncomfortable ways.
            After just a few chapters, he went from a minor character, who had emerged for a specific plot purpose, to a main character. He’d pushed two of my main characters into the role of minor characters. He had completely changed the storyline.
            I may have been the one controlling the keyboard, but that did not keep me from being miffed at him (the way you'd be miffed at toddler for playing in the dirt. It's cute, but you wish they wouldn't play in the dirt). That did not keep me from audibly asking, “What are you doing? Where are you taking me?”
            It was because of L’Engle’s story of the unexpected appearance of a character she had not intended to create that I decided to let my character go. I decided to let him do his thing. I decided to follow the story. I was grateful he hadn’t suddenly appeared after the story was almost over—forcing me to go back and re-write the whole thing.
            The person he became was different than the person he had been.
I was glad I didn’t try to wrestle him into submission. Because I like the rogue character better.
I also liked how he changed the other characters. I liked how his presence challenged them. I liked how they grew into different people because of him.
I am glad that what I sat down to write was very different than what I wrote.
I was glad that what I had planned turned into something else.
I was glad I listened to the work.

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