That D.O.A. second novel
My second novel was written with the cold calculation of a banker tallying the day’s deposits- with serious purpose, but little emotion other than a tinge of hidden greed. I went through great lengths to make sure the plot was sound and solid, with no voids or structural defects. The characters were similarly drawn, their strengths and flaws well matched to what the plot demanded of them. Every chapter carefully carried its own weight, each one spanning the plot foundation in precise, measured fashion so the structure wouldn’t sag. And in my desire to avoid the ridiculous length of my first novel, I deliberately set a 60,000 word target with all the zeal of a missionary who’s convinced he knows how many souls he has to save to ensure heaven for himself. This novel (I was hoping) would hit it big, thanks to my meticulous preparation.
It all came to nothing.
Perhaps I secretly knew that could be the only result. My characters didn’t flinch, didn’t say a single unnecessary word, didn’t do anything out of character ever or have even one original thought. I wouldn’t allow it. I was guilty of character abuse in the third degree, providing them with just enough air to speak but not enough to breathe. They were convincing automatons, but not people- certainly not ones you would care to care about. Instead of flesh, there was wax; instead of souls, there were springs. And so they smoothly went through their mechanical motions in my mechanical plot, never doing anything wrong in a way that would worry you eventually if you were a parent: damn it, show some resentment, will you? You’re scaring me. Free yourselves from my tyranny!
So what did I learn from this year-long writing exercise? Well, limits, for one thing. There are limits on how controlling you can be towards your characters. They do not respond well to overwhelming external forces; they become compliant in a way real people don’t, spirits crushed and souls drained. What I learned to cherish are those moments when characters bark back at marching orders that are at odds with who they’ve become, fists displayed instead of salutes. Those can be warning signs- ones I ignored in my first novel- but they can also be the first signs of life, a time when you should leap up from your desk chair and cry Eureka! because you just struck gold, my friend. Too much of that, of course, and kiss goodbye your best-laid plans; your characters are going places you probably don’t want to visit, as I discovered when I gave the characters in my first novel free reign and they took things to extremes. Hijacked, and I was to blame.
Your characters must be allowed to suggest some elements of your story, steer the ship once in awhile or they’ll never come alive. Try to wind your story too tight around them, and you’ll have what looks and sounds like genuine characters, but are really just hollow puppets for your plot, soulless beings going through the motions to satisfy their cruel creator. And your book will suffer for the restraint, with opportunities lost and the cart (no matter how brilliantly designed) before the more-important horse.
Creating characters is a balancing act you have to master, one that takes a firm hand against outright mutiny while remaining open to reasonable suggestions your characters might have. A well-crafted story is essential, of course, but characters- it turns out- not only count, they count the most.
Next up: An Audience for Einstein: the early days