|The Journey: what's around the next bend? Photograph by Shayna Matthews.|
|When the plot crumbles...aftermath of your character war.|
A writer is a unique specimen of being. We create characters, journeys and universes of our own accord. Occasionally, we get lucky. A person will unfold before our eyes, plucked seemingly out of the blue. The character breathes life into the story. He or she forms his/her own thoughts and opinions, and expresses them freely, running roughshod over your meticulous plotting. "This is not how it's gonna be," he might tell you.
No matter what you try, the scene collapses much like an implosion of brick and mortar. A writer might fight the nagging little voice, after all, it is the author's tale to tell, is it not? Characters must do as they are bidden. (And if you believe that, I have a nice piece of ocean front property in Arizona for sale...interested?)
Advice on fictional writing is easy to find in this modern world. A quick search will unearth an avalanche of rules. How to write a novel. How not to write a novel. Planning. Plotting. Flying by the seat of your 'pantsters'. Show, don't tell. Well, tell a little, that one's all about balance, right? Character heroes vs. villains. But I believe it all boils down to two things: knowledge and trust. We must know our characters as we know ourselves. Perhaps more so. Trust in them, in their voices, should they decide to speak to you. They know the story better than the writer, for they are living it.
I've heard it said about historical fiction, that an in-tune author inadvertently summons past truths. The characters we flesh out on paper lean over our shoulders and whisper the story within the life they lived once upon a time. It is the author's job to listen. Once in a great while, a spirited character will do a little more than whisper. They "nudge" with the force of a twelve-pound hammer.
I know an author--let's call her Lynn--who has a regular habit of picking up on those not so subtle signs from her "fictional" characters, so to speak. She was in the realm of a chapter fight with a secondary character, an unruly cowboy, who refused to stay in the background. Character and writer could not see eye to eye, and the plot began to unravel at the seams.
Lynn went to one of her favorite stomping grounds, a western boutique filled with the leather-scented dreams most cowgirls lust over. In the shop, she gravitated toward a handmade pendant. It was a large brass portrait medallion. The image was clearly one printed from who-knows-where, a cheap repro of the original portrait of a smug cowpoke. The original was, no doubt, just that--the real thing. The unnamed puncher donned in threadbare britches, a whitish shirt and a broad-brimmed hat might not have had many worldly goods in his life at the time the photograph was taken, but he had pride--scads of it.
Lynn walked through the store for nearly two hours, but kept returning to that pendant. She could not shake the image, for the man was everything she imagined her own stubborn character to be...crude, boyish, charming and completely unforgettable. She bought it and brought it home. The very next day, she scanned Pinterest boards, looking for nothing in particular. The moment she brought up those pictorial boards, an image seared through her heart: it was a photograph of the old west cowboy, the very same image she had bought the day before, marked simply: C. 1890 Cowboy.
Upon letting the pounding of her heart settle back in its place, a frantic yet thorough search for the cowboy revealed...nothing. His image is there, he crops up from time to time to haunt her, and yet, his story remains a mystery. At least, for now. For you see, now that Lynn has learned to listen, that prideful cowboy is whispering the true tales of his stories in her ear. She writes them down as fast as she can. When she strays too far from the truth of her characters, she flounders. Then she must pause, reflecting on the past, and search for what went wrong. Often she has to bite down, swallowing her pride for the good of the story, and trust a little deeper in the whispers of the characters she is writing with. You see, for Lynn, they are more than characters. They are the people who lived the tale, the co-authors of their own tales, and the teachers who guide her down the adventurous journey of history, of authorship, and of self-discovery.
Written by Shayna Lynn Matthews