Monday, January 28, 2013

Learn From My Fail: Character Edition

As some of you might already know from my ecstatic late night tweeting last week, I just finished and turned in the final novel in my new SciFi trilogy. This was the 12th novel I've finished (13th if you count 2k to 10k, which I've decided I don't since it's not actually a novel) and the second series I've completed... and OMG did it kick my butt.

That's the thing about writing, isn't it? Even after a million and a half words written (that's only counting finished books, if we throw in scrapped projects and cut words, it's over two million) I'm still making mistakes. So, in the spirit of learning and to try and make all that hell I went through into something positive, I want to share what I learned so none of you ever have to go through that shit. Because seriously, it sucked.

Lesson Learned: Characters Dictate Plot, Not the Other Way Around
My new series, hither to referred to as Paradox, is a high octane science fiction action series with a strong romantic subplot featuring a female powered armor mercenary. There's also a giant conspiracy, aliens with shadowy plans, and lot of intrigue and mystery. It's a plot heavy series, in other words. Lots of things happening and people doing stuff and external conflict (aliens attack, secrets are revealed, etc) pushing events forward.

Seeing that, when I sat down to plot the events of the second and third books (book 1 was already turned in), I naturally plotted the action first. These were the events that were going to happen, and my characters would have to deal with them (RED FLAG). I followed my usual plotting method, and by the time I was ready to start Paradox book 2, I had everything all nicely laid out plus several notes about the events of book 3 (because knowing where you're going is essential to tight writing, but never more so than in a complicated series like this one). For the first half of the book, I was trucking along just fine. And then I got to the middle, where everything started going wrong.

Remember that red flag? This is where it comes in. See, several big secrets are revealed in the middle of book 2, and Devi, my main character and the novel's first person perspective, is forced to go on the run. Here's the thing, though: Devi was created from a mix of Ellen Ripley, Sarah Conner, Killashandra from the Anne McCaffrey Crystal Singer book, and Toph from Avatar the Last Airbender. If you know any of those characters, then it should come as no surprise that Devi doesn't run. She's a mercenary who clawed her way up the ladder through raw skill, reckless ambition, showmanship, and a flagrant disregard for her own safety. So when the plot said, "Run!" Devi cocked her gun, dug in her heels, and said, "No."

Through the lens of perfect hindsight, this disconnect is obvious, but at the time things were far more murky. I didn't even realize how much trouble I was having until I started missing my word quotas. I went from an average 8-10k a day to 4 or 5, and then 2. It was infuriating, because I was writing. I was following the damn plot, I just wasn't getting anything I liked and I couldn't figure out why. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn't figure out what, and with a deadline looming, I couldn't stop to figure out what. Eventually, I forced myself to finish the novel and turned it in, but it wasn't until I got my editor's notes that I realized what was actually going on.

By focusing everything on the plot's action, I accidentally stole my character's agency. I pulled up the plot train and told the characters to get in, but Devi's not the kind of woman to lie down and accept being railroaded, and all her scenes from that moment on were pretty much junk. This wouldn't have been quite so bad in a third person book, but for a first person character, especially one as belligerently proactive as Devi, it was doom. So I did the only thing I could do with a book so intrinsically broken: I went back to where things went wrong, deleted everything after that point, and surrendered the reins for the rewrite.

Funny enough, nothing in the plot changed. All the events still happened as I'd laid them out, only now, instead of me going to Devi and saying "this is what happens to you," the thought process went, "here is what happens, what do you do?"

That was it. Three months of horrible, hair pulling writing failure answered by a simple perspective shift. Looking back, it was laughably obvious, but then, the simplest answers are always the biggest game changers. And oh, how the game did change. The moment I gave Devi back her power, all my words came back. Writing was fun again, as it always should be, and the new book was so much better.

By the time I finished my rewrite three weeks later, the basic events of the ending had not changed. The characters still went to the same places and did the same things, but the way those scenes were written was completely different, because Devi was acting rather than reacting. She was now dictating the plot by her actions rather than being dictated to (because Devi doesn't do being dictated to, even by me), and this subtle shift changed the entire tenor of the book.

The real kicker of this lesson, though, was that I already knew it. I even have a section of 2k to 10k that more or less says "don't do this." But I thought I was making Devi proactive because she was still powerful and dangerous. She still had her guns and her skills, she was still a badass, so I thought I was covered. In reality, though, I'd fallen into the subtle trap of confusing different types of power.

Power in a character doesn't come from their own badassery or how many people they can shoot, it comes from their ability to make choices. When I took away Devi's choice and forced her onto the plot train, I stripped her of her real power, and she wasn't having any of it. That should have been a red flag right there, because when a character flat out refuses to do something, they always have good reasons. My real failing in all of this was that it took me so long to shut up and listen.

I like to say that I'm god in my novels. I'm the writer, I literally create the world from my imagination. You'd think, then, that I would have all the power, but I don't. I, too, am bound by the rules I set down and the people I create. Annoying and plot wrecking as their protests might be, a character who can stand up and say No is a treasure, one I'm still learning to appreciate.

I hope that this post about my mistakes helps you to avoid similar missteps in your own writing. Really, I should have stopped the moment I knew something was wrong. Forcing yourself to write a book that isn't working is just about the most painful and ego bashing experience possible... for a reason. Because you should never be doing it. I knew that, but I thought I was better. I thought I was a hotshot writer and could just fix things as I went. (Cue hysterical laughter). Yeah, no.

Really, this was Lesson #2: when something's wrong, don't press on, stop and fix it. It's a lesson I have to relearn every book, apparently, but hopefully your head isn't as thick as mine and you can spare yourself the suffering. I'm sorry for the huge rambling and overly specific post, but I try to write this blog as the diary of a working writer. That means recording and examining the way I screw up to make sure I understand what went wrong and never do it again, but also so that there's a record of how I solved the problem for the next person who falls into the hole.

Anyway, I promise my next blog post will be more generally useful and entertaining. Until then, thanks for reading and good luck with all your words.

Now, on to copy edits!

- R


Danielle C said...

I have had the same trouble recently, my characters didn't want to have anything to do with what I was throwing at them and I couldn't work out why until I read your blog!
I stopped listening to them >.>
I'm sorry you went through that agony, but you have taught me something in the process :)
Thank you for the post!

Anonymous said...

As usual, your post was clever and inspiring. It is hard, sometimes, to see things like that when you are in the midst of the writing haze... great post! Thank you for sharing...and happy editing! (can't wait to read the series! That character sounds fantastic!)

Deshipley said...

Hell hath no fury like a character denied their rightful say in their destiny.

...That's not how the saying goes? Well, maybe it ought to be.

We can dictate the characters' lives, but not their selves. The sooner we get that, the happier the author/character partnership will be. Thanks for the reminder, Rachel!

(P.S. -- I'm in love with "Spirit's End". Review coming, once I can channel my happy noise into coherent thoughts.)

Jessi said...

Thank you for posting this. I've been having trouble with a character similar to Devi. Right now, it feels like a lot is happening to her, and not as much enough of her doing something. That is a problem. I've got a secondary POV that's working like magic, and it's in the 3rd POV (whereas Leah is in 1st). Secondary character has been jumping right off the page.

You are totally right. Time to reevaluate what's going on here. Ugh I was totally feeling ready for CPs to read these 50 pages, but now I'm not.

Rachel Aaron said...

Thanks for all the kind words and great comments. Seriously, I think this happens to all of us sometimes. It's such a great thing to have a character stand up for their own story, but it can be SO FRUSTRATING when you know you're going to wrong way but can't figure out the right one.

Graeme Ing said...

What an incredibly topical post for me. I just spent the last few days trying to rebuild my outline. I had EXACTLY the same thing happen to me. Halfway through writing the book, it blew up on me. I'd done the same thing as you - built a plot sequence and forced my chars into it. Doh! Don't we feel stupid :) Everyone knows that an organic plot comes out of character choices. Thank you, for making me realize I'm not the only one who does this.

Heidi A Wilde said...

Thank you for this post! It is definitely something I need to keep in mind. I know -I KNOW- I know my best writing happens when I let the characters tell the story they came to me to dictate, but sometimes I get caught up in my own narrow view.

Me: Come on guys! This really cool thing is gonna happen here... just as soon as you all show up! *shoveshoveshoveshove*

Chars: Quit pushing, lady! Why would we go there in that way? We wouldn't! Do you not know who I am??

Me: Yes, yes, of course I do, I created you, silly. Now, just zip on over here cuz we have to get to this really cool thing.

Chars: Yeah, no. That doesn't make any sense.

Me: Well, just this once. Something a little out of character, what's the big deal?

Char: I don't have time for this. I have a life to lead. Come guys, we're outta here. Deuces, yo!

Me: But... But... Fine! Who needs you?! I'll just work on another project.

Chars (in my subconscious): *carry on with their lives in their own way and end up where I wanted them in a way that actually makes sense* Wow! Look at this cool thing!

Me: Ohhhhh... Yeah, your way is better.

Thank you for reminding me that I'm not a cat herder.

KJ said...

This is a great, great post!!

And exactly what I've been going through with my first novel and planning out the second. So many times I'd hit the same scenes or chapters and come away still not pleased AT all. I started to stop forcing or pushing and just imagine them walking into the scene or situation and asking 'what now?' to them. So they led I guess.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing this Rachel. It was really helpful.

Hey, when are the new books going to be available for me to gather up in my greedy 'Lil hands?

You're doing these under a different name, right?


Spinner Beech said...

Through A Glass Darkly put it very well. XD The first novel I ever wrote was awful, awful trash pile - but I'm able to remember it as something I learned a lot from, because among other things my main female lead took one look at the opening scene and was like "I am not that dumb. Gimme a gun." (I was planning on her walking in on someone dangerous unarmed). It's happened many times since, with better stories and characters, and I'll be sure to return to this post in the future. :)

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing your pain! You're advice is always helpful. I've recently finished a rough draft for my book in 21 days doing an average of 925 words per hour because of your advice on writing faster. (I used to average 250 WPH) Thank you! Thank you!

SF said...

Great post! I've always been skeptical when people say "my character took over," but the way you discuss it--how characters dictate plot and not the other way around--makes me realize that I experience this all the time. And, thanks to you, I am now armed against it!