I read a book recently that made me think about the relationship a writer has with his or her characters. Combined with the uptick this year in people asking me about a Waterways sequel (again), this has made me think about some things and then write them down in a list. You know, like you do.
1. The primary thing on my mind is this: make your story worthy of its characters. I write character-driven fiction, and so my stories usually center around a character learning something or experiencing something. If the story isn’t doing anything for the character, I usually can sniff that out and either I change the story or abandon it. The character has been created out of nothing to go through this story, and if the story isn’t worth it, then I might as well just let the character go on and live his life (or her life) and not bother them.
(How do you decide if a story is worth writing? That’s up to you. The way I think of it is: is this experience something the character will be telling his/her friends about in ten years? Preferably in a “this changed my life” kind of way? Then yeah, it’s probably worth it.)
2. The story must also be worthy of the side characters. The main character isn’t the only one in any story. This goes back to something I’ve been saying for years, which is: imagine the side characters are the stars of their own book. How would they act? Is it significantly different from how they’re acting? Then something’s wrong. They are just as alive and just as important as the writer’s main character, and even though they don’t have as much screen time, they have to feel alive to the reader.
3. “Make your characters suffer” is not an adage that exists in a vacuum. One of the reasons I liked Heretic so much is that yes, Rukis is terrible to her characters. But she is not arbitrarily terrible. That’s an important distinction. You want your characters to suffer because stories are about change, and it is fucking hard to get people to change–just think of your friend who drinks too much, or won’t quit smoking even though they have trouble climbing a flight of stairs, or won’t try to meet other people despite complaining about being lonely…these are just small examples and maybe not worthy of stories, but in them are the reasons we write stories: to teach us to change. The characters in the stories suffer so that we don’t have to. They go through the extreme circumstances that would make us change our ways, they come to the realizations we would come to in those situations, and they pass that knowledge along to us. When Isolation Play was published, I got several letters from people saying that after reading it, they took steps to mend a broken relationship with their parents–in the cases where I heard the results of those attempts, they went well. Those people didn’t have to get into fights with their boyfriends’ fathers; they learned from the troubles of the characters in the book–as did the characters themselves. That suffering meant something, both to the characters and to us. What does arbitrary trouble teach us? We try to weave meaning and lessons into the events that happen in the real world, the suffering we see around us: earthquakes and tsunamis, car accidents and cancer. Stories are a way to wrap hardship in meaning; without the meaning, what’s the point?(*)
(*) Yes, there are wonderful books like The Bridge of San Luis Rey and others whose point is attempting to distill meaning from the random events of life, and they are related to this. The characters in The Bridge of San Luis Rey who suffer are not the ones killed in the fall; they are the ones left behind, and from their grief, we understand the message the writer is conveying. What? You haven’t read The Bridge of San Luis Rey? Go do it. It’s short and it’s worth it. Plus, then there’ll be one more movie where you can say, “Pssht, the book was so much better.”
4. Characters do not require a happy ending. Change and growth are often painful. I tend to view endings where the character has learned a lesson and is ready to embark on a better life as happy, even if the character is still smarting from the wounds incurred in the learning of the lesson. Some people don’t see it that way, and that’s fine. There are all kinds of stories and all kinds of readers, and as long as readers believe the characters, they will be engaged with them. Having a reader hate the story because the writer was so mean to the characters is, in a way, a success: the writer created characters the reader engaged with and cared about, and didn’t want bad things to happen to. But ultimately, the writer’s only obligation to the characters is to end the story well.
Yes, this is almost the same as making the story worthwhile, but I wanted to call out endings in particular because they are so important. The ending has to leave the character in a state where the lesson has been learned or not, where the story has been brought to a close or left open in an acceptable way. Wrapping everything up neatly, giving someone a happy ending when it isn’t earned by the story, those can be as bad as an unworthy story.
5. Characters will let you know when they are ready for their story to be told. Just from my own cast, we have Dev and Lee, and while I think Dev is dragged unwillingly into book after book, Lee is a drama queen who wants the spotlight even as he protests that it’s too bright. They continue to bother me to write about them, finding stories to put them on stage with, demanding attention. Kory and Samaki, by contrast, seem worn out by their experiences, and are content to just go on with their uninteresting, happy lives. They had their moments and now would like to just shut the door, thank you very much. Believe me, if there were a story to be told with those two, I know there are people out there who want to read it. You write me and come up to me at conventions and make wistful comments on forums and Facebook, and I appreciate all of that, really. I love that you love them so much that you want to see more of them. It’s just that they don’t want to be in a story right now. See above: stories are about conflict and growth and change and suffering, and those kids just want to get through college.
Lee, on the other hand, would say, “I’ll live happily ever after when I’m dead.” So you know, those guys have two more books coming, and probably one more after that, and when I’m ninety I’ll be writing about them arguing about the holovision volume in the retirement home and whether to get a prosthetic tail or not. Unless they get worn out. Unless they stop coming to me and demanding attention. And then I’ll turn to someone else (what up, Sol?).
Because that’s the other thing about characters, the thing every writer has to remember: if the character isn’t right, you can always make a new one.
Just do it with care. Because if you don’t care about your characters, how can you expect your readers to?