Thursday, May 13, 2010

Those Pesky Characters

Those Pesky Characters
By Carolyn Haines

I’m certain I’m not the only writer whose characters stage major revolts! I mean really, if my characters aren’t stirring trouble somewhere, they aren’t happy. They work in my subconscious while I’m sleeping, and by the time I wake up, they’re so far ahead of me I play catch-up all day long.

They’re on Facebook, cracking wise and colluding with my friends to nail me. If you think I’m kidding, go looking for Sarah Booth or Tinkie. Or Jitty—who has all but put out an S.O.S. in cyber-space to get Sarah Booth laid. And all of this in the wee hours while I think I’m asleep. I wake up to the wildest posts. 

Do you realize what a trial it is to have such frisky characters?

But first I should make the proper introductions, as any well brought up Southerner would know. Sarah Booth, Cece, Tinkie, and Millie are the “gals” from the Sarah Booth Delaney Mississippi Delta mystery series. The latest book, BONE APPETIT, will be out late June. These four women have forged a friendship that is stronger than almost any bond humans can make.

I’ve lived with these characters for over ten years and ten books. They are as much a part of my life as my flesh-and-blood friends. But they are often as mysterious as my friends. And heaven knows, I am not in charge of the decisions these characters make. At least not all the time. Not even half the time.
I wonder how many other authors feel this way?

There is something remarkable about the relationship between a writer and series characters. While a reader may speed through one of my books in four or five hours (some people read much faster!) I spend the better part of each year writing about these people, and they are people to me.

Each book reveals more about Sarah Booth and her Zinnia friends. Things I originally thought about a character turns out not to be true. It’s a rather amazing journey to take, but it requires something I’m not very good at…surrender. I simply have to give myself to the story and trust the characters and see where it takes me.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t write an outline. I do. I write mysteries, so it’s incumbent upon me to make sure the clues are laid properly and the reader has an enjoyable experience while romping through the pages of the book. To do that, I have to have some idea of what the story is about. While I may not be steering the canoe, I am plying the paddle. I have to keep us going downstream, at least, even if we ram a few tree stumps and sandbars.

But once I have the story figured out, I have to turn it over to Sarah Booth, Jitty, and the others. As the story unfolds, opportunity presents itself for a character to take one action or another—and that action must follow the nature of the character. Believe me, Sarah Booth and particularly Jitty get a little snarky if I try to tell them what their true nature is all about. They have an idea that I need them a lot more than they need me!

I’ll give you a for instance. In HALLOWED BONES, Sarah Booth is supposed to meet Hamilton Garrett V at the airport. Instead she drives to Zinnia, abandoning him and his proposal of a wonderful life in Paris. Try as I might, I could not make Sarah Booth go to the dang airport. She wasn’t leaving the Mississippi Delta. Not even for a trial run at happiness with a wealthy, handsome heir. She had her P.I. business, and Dahlia House, and her friends, and her future—which she was not trading for hot sex and a wealthy man. Trust me, I was shocked at her choice.

But not disappointed. Never disappointed. It has taken me long years to develop a trust in my characters, but I do trust them. They are fully formed now, with a lot of history (writers may call it back story) and a firm grasp on where they want to go. While I am in charge of the mysteries, they are in charge of themselves.

Is this a good thing?

I’m not sure. But I am sure that a lot of writers have the same experience. It’s part of the joy of writing.

Carolyn Haines was recently given the 2010 Harper Lee Award. She is releasing her 10th book in the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series, BONE APPETIT, in June 2010. Feel free to visit her website and be sure to sign up for her newsletter. You can also follow her (and her characters!) right here on Facebook.


Jitty said...

Pesky characters?! You're gonna get it, missus.

Sarah Booth Delaney said...

Jitty, get offline. Leave Carolyn alone and go haunt yourself.

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

Characters! Always showing off. You gotta love 'em. If you don't there's no book. *sigh*
Giggles and Guns

Anonymous said...

Great essay and I love that your characters commented. If they are so real to you I'm sure they're real to your readers. This is a series I need to look into.

Tamela Buhrke said...

You are so right! Characters have a mind of their own. Sometimes it feels like having a multiple personality disorder! In any case, we love Sarah Booth, Jitty and the whole crazy gang.

Carolyn said...

I have to say that I could have written about Jitty's dark side, but that all deserves to go in the horror genre, not mystery. Beware, Jitty!

I do have great fun with my characters. But as my ex-husband once said, "you're not wealthy enough to be eccentric, you're just plain crazy" (he was kidding me and not being mean). There is truth there.

Eleanor Andrews said...

Great post! Sounds like the writer is just a puppet to those haunting characters!

Jitty said...

You got that right, Eleanor