What captures you more—a thrilling plot or a fascinating character? The impetuous Scarlett O’Hara and the dashing Rhett Butler, or the Civil War? A good story makes us care about the people in it—everything else is secondary. Complex characters drive the action and the plot.
A story comes to me first as an idea—a situation or event that I think would be compelling. It then evolves into a storyline with a sense of a beginning and an end. Next, I get a sense of who lives in the story world. The plot gets things started, but the characters are the lifeblood—things become exciting when they arrive on the scene. I give them physical characteristics, family backgrounds, personality traits, strengths, and flaws. Characters are like children; they make their own choices, go their own way, and create their own destinies. When they start to speak, they always surprise me. First impressions are often wrong and like a friendship, secrets are revealed along the way. Family skeletons tumble from the closet, shedding light on their motivations and shortcomings.
Jack, the hero, in my current work in progress is smart and tough but has a reckless streak. Could I have stopped him from marrying a sociopath? Of course. But it was a lesson he had to learn on his own. I resist the urge to make it all better, to steer my characters in the “right” direction. I bite my lip and let them plunge into murky waters that may harm or ruin them, and hope they emerge stronger than before. The choices aren’t always mine. The surprise is the creative process.
My characters have taken me places I never would have gone and taught me valuable lessons. I have amended, discarded, and re-created story lines all based on the evolution my characters have undergone, and the story is always the better for it.
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