Those Pesky Characters
What’s more appropriate for a guest spot on a blog called Character Purgatory than a post about fictional people? Like any novelist, I wreak havoc on my characters, constantly thinking up ways to complicate their world, get them in trouble, mess up their relationships, force them to grow whether they like it or not—until they reach that magic place where they have achieved what I set out for them to do and I can release my grip and let them enjoy life for a while. We novelists are sadists, ever on the alert for new types of suffering to inflict on our characters. It’s our job.
But not all the pain goes from authors to their creations. Although imaginary people, characters can attain an amazing level of reality. Some of my best ones prove to be stubborn as mules, laden with techniques for getting their own back. They hide in the shadows, refusing to reveal themselves (we call this writers’ block). They take time to develop, just like real people. They go off on their own, surprising me with their insistence on solving a problem in this way, not that. I find myself arguing with them, as if they were teenagers with attitude, patiently explaining that in that time and place they should be more independent or less, should take the privileges of their gender or class for granted, should be gentler or meaner, more religious, better educated, more eager to swing a sword or ply a needle. They laugh in my face and go their own way, and if I want to see where they will end up, I have to trust them to lead me there.
If you’re a writer of fiction, you probably have encountered this phenomenon yourself. If you’re not, you may be searching the local directory for the number of a nice psychotherapist to recommend. But bear with me, please. Of course, I don’t really believe that my characters maintain an existence separate from me. I create them and their world, and they represent facets of myself (yes, even the baddies). But the human subconscious is a strange and marvelous place, and a smart writer takes advantage of its capacity to weave seemingly disconnected elements of personality and life into a rich and coherent story—sometimes in ways that the conscious mind cannot immediately comprehend. A decision that a novelist makes on the fly for practical reasons—to kill off a character’s mother, say—may turn out to hold the key to that character’s whole personality. When one of my fictional people gets balky or an image nags at me or a plot element keeps butting in, I’ve learned to go with the flow, confident that the story will benefit as a result.
The same point applies even to titles and central images for each book, as illustrated by my ongoing series, Legends of the Five Directions. The first two novels are out, the third roughly plotted (with luck, I will finish it in about a year, unless the Magic Book Fairy blesses me with an independent income that allows me more hours to write), while the last two remain vague collections of ideas corralled by titles and cover pictures. The title of The Golden Lynx refers to a creature of the Russian woods but also to a piece of Scythian jewelry given to the heroine to remind her of the past she has reluctantly left behind; more deeply still, it evokes the heroine herself, a small but determined fighter against injustice. The Winged Horse represents the forces of air, the element linked to the east in Chinese and Turkic cosmology, as well as the hero’s main antagonist and the personality changes the hero must make to succeed; the horse flies between this life and the next, both literally and figuratively. The swans of the Russian north are pushing their way into The Swan Princess as I write, urging the heroine toward loyalty, toward commitment, toward the fierce defense of those she loves. I’m not sure yet how she will get there, but based on my past acquaintance with her, I suspect she will fight me all the way, insisting that she knows where she’s going, thank you very much. And I will shut up and listen, hoping with fingers crossed that she’s right, while beating back the phoenixes and shamans demanding my attention for books 4 and 5.
Maybe that’s why we writers torture our characters: because we are equally convinced that they are torturing us. But it’s an honor and a privilege to map out their journey, even if our subconscious, in the end, turns out to control the wheel.
C. P. Lesley, a historian, has published three novels: The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, The Golden Lynx (Legends 1: West), and The Winged Horse (Legends 2: East). She is currently working on The Swan Princess (Legends 3: North). For more information, follow her blog. http://blog.cplesley.com You can find links to her books at her publisher’s website. http://www.fivedirectionspress.com/books
The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel
A modern-day graduate student enters the virtual-reality world of an eighteenth-century novel. Her life—and the novel—will never be the same.
The Golden Lynx
16th-century Moscow hums with rumors about its newest hero, the Golden Lynx. Everyone knows the Lynx must be a man, but “everyone” may be wrong…
The Winged Horse
Dispatched to collect his almost-forgotten bride, an inexperienced Tatar prince must overcome a deadly rival to obtain his inheritance and secure his future.