Creating Stories, Creating Characters

If there is one thing I know for certain, it’s that I have a great story.  In a burst of creative energy last week, I wrote the synopsis of my novel as a part of the “package” one sends to agents as a part of the querying process. I fell in love with my story all over again.  Great plot twists, unexpected surprises, rising tension that explodes in an epic climax.  It’s all there.  Except for one thing:  characters.

Don’t get me wrong, I have great characters.  They talk to me while I’m doing the dishes, they have nuanced preferences in how they like their pizzas, they argue with one another about what shows to DVR.  They are as real to me as my own children, and yes, I know that’s weird, but it’s true.  I could tell you their full life stories, their dreams, their hopes.  I could tell you how they’ll vote in the next election and what color shirt they’ll pick out tomorrow.  The one thing I can’t do, or at least haven’t been able to do, is bring that to paper.

On July 21st, 2007, J.K. Rowling sent half the world into a reading frenzy with the publication of The Deathly Hallows, her final book in the Harry Potter series.  At the time, I was traveling in Dublin and was about to board a bus that would take me clear across Ireland to meet my then boyfriend, now husband, in a little town called Doolin.  This was our first real trip abroad together, and I swore to him that I would not purchase the book because I knew I would spend half of our precious week in Ireland sitting by myself and devouring it.  It was just past six in the morning and the streets of Dublin were quiet. I turned the corner on my way to the station and came across a mob scene.  I wondered what was going on, and then registered the sign on the door that said “bookstore.”  In a daze, masses of people emerged clutching greedily to the final installment about the boy wizard.  I caught glimpsed of the locket of Slytherin swirling across a dark cover.  I craved the double decker with its thick, fresh cut pages.  I could sense the force of energy around me, the promise of another world, the escape this book could bring.  But most of all, I missed Harry, Ron and Hermione.  I wanted to hang out with my friends again.

Oh, yes.  Hilarious.  Colleen has imaginary friends who live inside a book.  But people don’t read Harry Potter because of the world building, the vivid descriptions, the clever prose, or the twisting, turning narrative.  I hate to spoil it for everyone, but the young wizard gets the baddie in the end.  And we always knew that.  The good people of Dublin didn’t wake up in the wee hours of the morning and rush to a bookstore because they liked the setting or plot.  They took to the streets because they wanted to know what happened to their friends, the characters who had spellbound them for six books, the people they had come to love.

It took me three tries to make it to the bus station, but I kept coming back to that bookstore.  I would pick up The Deathly Hallows, open the cover, smell it, set it down.  Walk out the door, and turn right back. Finally, I bought the book. I needed something on the bus ride, right?  When Aaron saw me toting that big tome around he just laughed and shook his head.  He never said a word when I spent half the afternoon curled up by a peat fire reading as fast as my eyes could scan the page.  Unconditional love, guys. Unconditional love.

So after a lot of crying and throwing things, I finally had the breakthrough I needed to breathe life into my characters.  A part of the difficulty in creating characters is that I know them so well, almost too well. Their motivations seem so clear to me, their dialogue springs from an inner-dialogue that I’ve been hearing in my head for months now, their choices are obvious.  Why would I need to explain them? Oh, if only readers were mind readers.  But they aren’t, of course, and a part of the craft of writing is to show all the struggles, histories, back stories, inner-conflicts, and emotions of our characters without, you know, hitting our readers over the head with them or boring these poor people to death.  I’m not saying that someone is going to run out at 6 am and purchase my book, but I do feel like this week I took one step closer to creating characters that might almost feel like the very real people who hang out in my head.

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