For a week or two now, I've been taking a break from writing fiction, resting, writing other things, doing other things--I took the puppy to the lake, where he learned to swim--is there any greater joy than watching something you dearly love, something shaky and timid and excited and awkward take his first great flying leap into the deep?--all of this while waiting for a friend of mine to read over some of a very rough manuscript I've been working on.

"You're pushing your characters around," she told me yesterday, flatly.

My pup came back to me, flailing madly, struggling to hold his head up with the float in his mouth, wide-eyed, wild-eyed, delighted by what he'd learned.

This proud old dog took him home and sat down with her manuscript again.

And saw I was pushing my characters around.


It's a mistake I make often in early drafts. I love my story, I need certain things to happen for it to have depth and wave and heft, I'm overexcited . . . some things never change . . . and rather than waiting for the characters to put muscle on their bones and learn to move and think and act and breathe for themselves, I drag them around, I hurl them, I make them say and do things that are required by the plot and have nothing to do with the way their limbs are put together or their little brains, still only half-wired, half-finished, not yet full of the complexity they are going to have, are actually capable of thinking.

I do to my poor characters what I wouldn't do to anything else I love. I dunk them.

It's been interesting, these past weeks, watching the pup. At first, he wouldn't go into the water at all. Leading him did no good. Then he could put one paw in, then two, then four. A few more weeks, and he was up to his stomach. A sudden forgetfulness one day, and he jumped in as deep as his chest. Shocked.

It's something else entirely to let go of earth. A creature has to be ready for it. The bottom, once trusted, must be abandoned. The heart must be strong. The soul must be willing.

Signs that your characters may be unwilling:

illogical shifts in dialogue (they are saying what you want them to say)

inexplicable shifts in personality (they are doing what you want them to do)

inability to connect in more than inexplicable ways to the other characters around them (they are only feeling what you want them to feel)

separation, stiffness, rigidity in relation to the many moving parts around them (they don't really inhabit the element you've created for them).

Remedy: Stand on the shore and wait.

I move too fast, often, as I writer. I love my story. I want my characters to succeed in the ways I want them to succeed, or fail in the ways I want them to fail. I shove them in, surround them with bizarre devices, plastics, to keep them going. I let the story tell them, and not the other way around.

This isn't swimming.

Now I must stand by the shore a while. And wait. And watch.

Then wade.

Then go slowly deeper.



Great post, Mylene. Sometimes the process requires more patience than we've got.

The answer to that, unfortunately, is to walk through the world until you find another can of patience, then another and another...

As many as it takes.
I think that's why outlining frequently does not work for me--it seems the characters only come alive when they move off what I wanted for them to do. Edward Albee had a great strategy for this in plays, by the way. I don't know if it will work in fiction, but what he said he did was to put his characters in a situation that he knew would not be in the play and see how they interacted. He said he learned so much more about them that way and then he felt like he was ready to begin his draft. I'm probably paraphrasing him horribly, but he said something to this effect in an interview once. If I find the interview, I'll post it.

Oh, and then there's the flip side of this problem, which is what I have right now. Characters who always want to do other things than what I've planned. It's so irritating, even though it's somewhat exciting. It's annoying because I'm always feeling like I'm grasping at thin air.
Mylène said…
Hey mates! Thanks for the feedback. Kathryn, I know what you mean about the strange quandary about needing characters to come alive, then being thrown when they do. I think this actually is even more roiling for me than when I was writing my first novel. It's as if, having written three novels, I think now I should have "mastery" as an author--i.e., more "control." In some ways I wish I could go back to those early days; but obviously what I need to do instead is let go and move forward.

Thanks again, my friends!

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