The other day I had dinner with a friend. She and I met at music camp when we were 12 (awww). But we’re both pretty absent-minded people (in fact, I asked her the other day if she’d seen “Stardust,” and she rolled her eyes and said, “Yes—with you!”). So I couldn’t blame her for exclaiming excitedly when she saw the sandwich I’d brought her (it was an impromptu picnic sort of dinner).
It was turkey and avocado, no onion, with mayo. “Do you know me, or what?” she said. “No onion—yes avocado. I couldn’t have picked a better sandwich if I’d ordered it myself.”
Besides the fact that I am obviously rubbing off on her in a scary way (she’s not at all the kind of person to get so excited about a sandwich, normally. But I am!), this comment was momentous for another reason: it made me realize (again) how much each of us really wants to be known. We want the people we care about to know who we really are, to keep track of our vital statistics, to recall our likes and dislikes. And then, of course, we want them to love us anyway.
While in real life this is somewhat complicated by the fact that people are generally pretty self-focused and they don’t pay much attention to what’s happening around them (also by the fact that women are fact-memorizing machines, while men appear to be not; hence the proliferation of women’s magazines trying to explain why he forgot your anniversary, and that it probably isn’t a sign of the ultimate demise of your relationship)—in writing, it can be somewhat easier. After all, we made up our characters to begin with. If we don’t know everything about them, who does?
I don’t make character charts when I’m working on a project (eyes: amber; height: 5’8”). I do a lot of free-writing, though. And I continue to free-write throughout the project—mostly during revision, when I’m trying to strengthen the plot or figure out if there’s a logical reason my character did that silly thing that I need her to do because otherwise the climax has no way of getting started.
Before I gave in and did a full re-write of my MG fantasy novel, I did a series of free-writing exercises for each of my main characters. I wrote five seminal scenes from their lives—most of them happening so far before the advent of the novel’s plot that the reader will never even hear about them. But I learned so much from the exercise itself, I even began to feel some sympathy for my villain.
Now that I’m considering—I haven’t decided, mind you, I’m still just considering—another, last, and trulytruly final re-write of the manuscript, taking my former main character’s sister as the main character (an idea that occurred to me a couple of years ago, but which I all too easily shoved aside and smothered with a pillow), I’m thinking more about this girl. I know her well, but it’s true: there are gaps in her days that I never asked her about. We’re going to have to sit down over some coffee (natch) and have a heart-to-heart so I can see if she really wants to be the main character.
For about a month, I’ve been considering this switcheroo. And a couple of weeks ago, I had an Epiphany. (I usually enjoy them, but when they change the entire plot of my story… not so much.)
In my original story, events transpire, and this girl has to step up to a position of responsibility for a lot of valid reasons.
But if she were the main character—if she and I were going to hike the rocky terrain of plotting side-by-side, instead of her trailing behind her brother and me—there is no way she would accept that position of responsibility. It’s not in her makeup. It wasn’t in her makeup before, mind you, but when I was more responsible to her brother than I was to her… well, I let it slide.
Moral of this blog: I just don’t think you can let things slide in relationships—whether they’re with real people or fictional characters. And if you want a relationship to last, by gum, you better get to know that other person, and remember everything you know about him or her. And there are no shortcuts for any of it. And it’s not easy. (Man, this is a long moral.) But if you try to take the easy way out—by, oh, I don’t know, trying not to do a total re-write, for example—it’s only going to make you unhappy and warp everything so that you end up giving in after struggling against the inevitable for far, far too long. So no shortcuts! And that’s it. For now.