by Mark David Gerson
About a year ago, I was listening to a guest speaker -- let's call him Tom -- at a writer's group. He was talking about characters.
"In the first half of your story," he said, "let your characters do what they want. But when you get to the second half, you've got to reign them in."
Tom was pretty insistent, and it was all I could do to not jump up and shriek NO!...not to the first half of his statement, but to the second.
I was reminded of that story some months later when I began working with a new coaching client. She'd written a powerful memoir -- so powerful that it had been nominated for a literary award. Now, a fictional character had accosted her in a misty Irish glen and was insisting that she write his story.
"But I've never written a novel," she exclaimed. "I don't know how!"
"You don't have to know how," I replied. "All you have to do is write his memoir."
Thing is, whatever story we're telling -- whether it's a novel, short story, stage play or screenplay -- we're writing someone's story.
What we're writing is their story. And what we're often discovering in that first draft is not only what that story is but who that character is...who all the characters are who make up that world.
Tom's point was that we spend the first half of our story discovering who the character is. From there, we spend the rest of the story making sure the character hews to that portrait.
My point is that we may only truly discover who that character is and what she's about by writing through to the end. Why stifle the creative process just when we've finally surrendered to the story's unfolding? Why limit ourselves and our characters by insisting that at a certain point in the draft, character and story are fixed for all time?
When I was working on the first draft of my latest novel, I had a pretty good idea who the villain of the story was and to what unpleasant end she would come in the final scenes. At least, I thought I did...
Then, on my last day of work on that draft, as I was letting one of the final scenes write itself, something unanticipated happened: Instead of the ugly death I was expecting, the villain had a profoundly redemptive experience that, within a few paragraphs, had transformed her from ugly antagonist into a positive force for continuing good. I was stunned.
In that moment, I had two choices: I could follow Tom's advice and refuse the villain her redemption, or I could surrender to the character's higher imperative and permit the alchemy to occur. I chose the latter, not only because I believe my stories and their characters are smarter than I am, but because my villain's transformation supports one of the story's central themes in ways I would have been hard-pressed to consciously manufacture.
In my first novel much about one of the principal characters shifted -- not only through the first draft, but through many of the drafts. He shifted not because I couldn't reign him in. He shifted because, through the writing, I began to understand more clearly who he truly was, both within himself and to the story.
In the "rules for character-building" that I use when I teach workshops on characterization, Rule #10 reads "How did John become Jane? And why is she suddenly the villain?"
Often, characters in our stories want to undergo radical changes through the course of that first draft. Too often, we follow Tom's advice and refuse them that freedom.
My view is that our job as Writer God is to give our characters absolute freedom through the entire first draft of our story...and, sometimes, beyond.
Unlike Tom, I say, Let your characters be as inconsistent and mercurial as they want to be. Let them veer off in completely different directions partway, if that's what they choose. Let your villains become heroes and your heroes become villains. Let them change names, physical characteristics, motivations and story-significance. Let them change gender.
Only by allowing them that freedom in your first draft will you learn who they truly are and be true to their story.
Let your first draft, as I said earlier, be your journey of discovery: of your characters and of their story. Through that journey, you will grow into your story and its characters. You might, as I did, only discover something of major significance about an important character on the final page of the draft. That's okay. Use your next draft to bring consistency to the characters you now know more fully.
Remember whose story you're telling...and get out of the way!
• How can you better trust your characters to reveal themselves to you?
• How can you stop trying to control your stories and, instead, let them emerge organically?
• How can you better surrender to the magic out of which all creativity is birthed?
• How can you trust that your stories and characters know themselves better than you do?
• How can you let yourself be surprised -- by your characters and by their stories?
(c) 2010 Mark David Gerson
Mark David Gerson has taught writing as a creative and spiritual pursuit for nearly 20 years in the U.S. and Canada. Through classes, workshops, coaching and consulting, Mark David has guided groups and individuals to connect with their innate wisdom, open to their creative power and express themselves with ease. Poets and playwrights, novelists and educators, amateurs and professionals, people who don't believe they can write and people with a compelling call to write -- all have benefited from working with him, as have nonwriters seeking to move through life's challenges and awaken to their highest potential.
Author of two award-winning books, The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write and The MoonQuest: A True Fantasy, Mark David has also recorded The Voice of the Muse Companion: Guided Meditations for Writers. Mark David is host of radio's The Muse & You with Mark David Gerson and is a regular featured guest on Unity.fm's Spiritual Coaching show. Mark David lives in Los Angeles, where he's working on a memoir, a screenplay adaptation of The MoonQuest and the first of two sequels to the novel.