Dealing with (character) Death

October 18, 2010 at 9:21 am (character, writing)

I try not to give too much thought to the way I kill my characters. The process is different every time. However, I learned this morning that there is one way I should never, ever attempt again.

I started the morning off in a bit of a panic. I was running late—again—and when I caught the bus a few minutes before it left, I wasn’t in the mood to sit down and wait out the ride. I tried to read Aurora Leigh to pass the time, but the blank verse made me even more jittery. I considered taking a nap, but again, I wasn’t tired enough for it. The only thing left to do was write.

But after retrieving my laptop, opening my story, and even turning on my iPod for emotional backup, nothing was coming. I couldn’t get the scene to come.

That’s when a character from my climax approached me and announced it was time for her to die.

At first, I was incredulous. No, missie, you still have the whole book ahead of you. You don’t get to die yet. And yet, the timing felt right—I was in the right frame of mind, the song matched, and I needed to work out the climax to make sure I had my worldbuilding right.

I gave in. The scene came surprisingly easily. This is probably the first death scene I’ve ever written in which the character didn’t fight me. In fact, she actually helped me through it. I guess she knew it was her time.

Quite frankly, the experience was awesome, and it taught me a ton about writing and character. I’ve heard good writers talk about foreshadowing character death, about having characters “ready to die” when their time comes, but I had never experienced it. Skipping to the climax let me know how I need to develop this character in the story. She and I grew impossibly close through the process of writing her death.

Normally, I take time to grieve after killing off a character. Unfortunately, all this happened while I was on the bus. When my iPod died right at the critical moment, I couldn’t rush to my room and recharge it; I had to continue in agonizing silence. When I needed most to stand up and pace and reason with my character, I was surrounded by strangers.

And when I ended the scene and she whispered, “Revise it. You didn’t make it long enough to do me justice,” I couldn’t throw up my hands at her. I couldn’t yell at her for prolonging her own death. I had to sit, staring at my tiny screen, as the rest grew silent.

I know that she isn’t a real character, that it may seem strange that I’m so worked up about this. Still, the experience speaks to me because it shows an important piece of the writing process. Writers need to be able to feel. Without feeling, we can’t bring these moments to life, can’t do justice to the death of someone we love. And sometimes, a writer’s setting infringes on that capability.

I’m not saying writers should be hermits. I’m saying we should realize that there are moments in our lives when we need to be alone with our characters. Sit with them, talk with them, and be there to hold their hands when they pass on. That’s the only way we’ll be able to face them in revisions, when they see in our eyes what we plan to do to them and tell us it’s okay.

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Quirks, coincidence, and keeping them straight

September 28, 2010 at 10:27 am (character, writing)

Just when I think I understand my characters, they tend to throw a surprise my way. Sometimes, it’s just Dreis being obnoxious; a few times, I’ve discovered something about Evram by trying to understand the way he interacts with my story. One of the best ways to get to know your characters is to figure out whether their interactions are quirks or coincidences brought about by the setting.

Abstract, isn’t it? Here’s an example from a character I know all too well:

I was late for class this morning. You’d think I would have figured out by now that it takes more than five minutes to find a parking spot on campus, but because I hadn’t, I was running to class. I realized midstride that something was wrong.

My shoes didn’t match.

Now I normally wouldn’t think much of this. I am, after all, absent-minded enough that I honestly can’t believe I haven’t done this before.

But a week ago today, I was running around campus wearing only one glove.

I can rationalize away both incidents. I wore mismatched shoes because I snatched the black one out from under a pile of books and knitting tools, mistaking it for the white shoe’s partner. And I only wore one glove because I only had one–the second wasn’t finished.

And yet, it’s hard to ignore my apparent tendency toward the asymmetric.

Next time you see me wearing mismatched shoes or one glove, I bet you’ll wonder if it’s a quirk or a coincidence.

Now take that question and start asking your characters. See what they want you to learn about them.

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Writing Response: character interview

March 24, 2010 at 3:31 pm (character, muse, writing, writing challenge)

Last week, my fellow blogger and fantasy writer Chersti discussed character development. While her post focused on Megan Whalen Turner’s book Queen of Attolia, Chersti brought up some neat ideas about character. My favorite was the idea of interviewing a character. In honor of that idea and a discussion I had with Chersti about muses, I would like to conduct an interview of my own, this time with my muse.

Dreishon: You need me?

Rachel: Yeah, c’mere. I want to interview you for my blog. But only if you promise to behave.

Dreishon: Meaning . . .

Rachel: No bashing on my other characters and no giving away spoilers.

Dreishon: shrugs Whatever.

Rachel: All right. To give my readers context, talk about your first appearance in my novel.

Dreishon: I save your useless protagonist from a moment of stupidity.

Rachel: Well, that was vague.

D:reishon You said no spoilers.

Rachel: facepalms Fine then. Talk about the first story you ever appeared in. The one that never got finished.

Dreishon: Which one are you thinking of? A character with my name showed up in one of your earliest stories. Very noble, very minor, very cliche. Didn’t he die to save the protagonist?

Rachel: Not that one. The group story.

Dreishon: Ah. The one you started in high school with your journalism friends. You decided to write a male character because you were in a group of girls. I seem to recall you writing in a girlfriend for me.

Rachel: Someone else’s character was making moves. I had to protect you. Talk about your character, not your old girlfriend.

Dreishon: I was the mentor in that story. You were the one who came up with the rules of magic, so I got to communicate them to the protagonist. hesitates

Rachel: What’s wrong?

Dreishon: You planned to kill me off at the end of that one, too.

Rachel: Moving on. Tell me about your family.

Dreishon: I can’t.

Rachel: frowning Why not?

Dreishon: Because it involves spoilers.

Rachel: Fine! I’ll ask more boring questions. What’s your favorite color?

Dreishon: Seriously?

Rachel: You’re the one who wouldn’t answer questions.

Dreishon: Red.

Rachel: That’s better. Talk to me about your favorite band.

Dreishon: You know I’m not overly fond of your music. It’s too noisy, too distracting, especially because most of it has lyrics and I can’t multitask as well as you. I don’t mind Yellowcard, though.

Rachel: What about your favorite books?

Dreishon: You haven’t read most of them. My father’s a historian, so I practically grew up in the library archives. You don’t have a long enough attention span to enjoy them, Rachel.

Rachel: Watch it. I’m writing those books.

Dreishon: I also like Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s original Dragonlance books. Fizban annoyed me at first, but after finding out he’s a god, I liked him a whole lot more.

Rachel: Dreis! I said no spoilers!

See what I have to put up with?

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Once a bridesmaid . . .

March 2, 2010 at 11:58 am (knitting, writing)

March 20 is the last day of winter, and even though March supposedly goes “in like a lion and out like a lamb,” I counted on the 20th being cold this year. Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal. I love the cold.

But when Cassie scheduled her wedding for the 20th and I chose a chiffon bridesmaid dress, I knew I was in trouble. How on Earth was I supposed to keep warm if I didn’t have a coat that matched my dress?

My initial response was pretty naive: no problem, I’ll make something to keep me warm. I hopped online and searched for a pattern.

When I came across MMario’s “Artemis” and “Queen of Heaven” shawls, I should have known I was in trouble.

But I bought the yarn. I eventually gave in and bought beads after I’d settled on “Queen of Heaven.” I had the needles, the row counter, and 32 hand-tied stitch markers made from scrap yarn. By some miracle, I finished the project three weeks before the wedding, even after it got moved up.

So what does this have to do with writing? Allow me to set up some visuals.

Astronomer's wrap, pre-blocking

This is what the shawl looked like fresh off the needles. The radiating pattern looks nice, but all the details are muddled. There’s not much of a chance for the beads to shine through.

After taking the shawl off the needles, I dunked it in a tub of tap water. (Wool creations must be bathed in order to make them behave.) I let the wool completely absorb the water, squished out some of the excess, and went to my room to block.

“Blocking” is what allows the pattern to “open up.” In short, it means saturating wool with water, then pinning the wool into a desired shape. Wool has a strong memory and will maintain its form from the skein if unblocked. Blocking, however, rewrites that memory.

The downside, of course, is that blocking takes up a massive amount of space. This

The Astronomer's Wrap in the process of taking over my bedroom floor

took up most of my bedroom floor and took an hour and a half to pin.

Why bother, then?

I’ve asked myself the same thing about revisions. I’m usually pretty happy when I finish a scene (though that may just be the elation of getting done). So why go through the agony of tweaking it?

The answer comes after perseverance. Just as I wouldn’t want to wear an unblocked shawl, I wouldn’t want an editor, to read an unpolished novel.

And who knows? Maybe someday, one of my books will be this beautiful:

The Astronomer's Wrap is more patient than I am

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