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On Their Own…

March 11, 2005

Last night I was talking to Blogger Mark, and in the course of the conversation we somehow ended up on the topic of the novel.  This is a rare treat for me – most people begin to glaze over when I start talking about writing – but not Mark.  Or if he does, I can’t tell, because you can’t see people through phones.

At one point, we were discussing the characters, and I revealed something that I have only gradually realized as I have been writing for this past year and a half.

My characters are taking on lives of their own.

Allow me to explain.

In historical fiction, the plot is already laid out.  On the surface this appears to be a blessing – you already know what happens, so you are spared the stress of having to make it up.  Dig a bit deeper, though, and it becomes a curse.  You quickly realize that you are saddled with all these events that you have to link together in a way that flows and makes sense.  In its own way, this is more daunting than building a story from scratch. 

Then, on top of making the story flow properly, you have to develop your characters in such a way that their actions make sense with regards to their personality.  What results is something like reverse engineering.  You have to shape the characters using the events so that, eventually, your characters can shape the events.

All of this becomes even more trying in ancient history, where, on some issues, there are no difinitive answers.  In addition to the ancient sources, you have to digest the opinions and theories of modern scholars, and pull out your own interpretation of events.

I think I have done a reasonable job with this whole process.  My characters fit into the story well, and react in their own natural ways to the greater events they find themselves swept up in.

As I write, though, I find myself discovering new traits about them, little personality quirks that seem to be emerging on their own, and yet fit into the greater framework of not only the book but the entire saga perfectly.

For example, I am starting to figure out that Scipio is something of a control freak.  It is not very apparent at first, when he holds only minor rank and has no ability to influence events.  As the story progresses, however, he comes to simply not trust others to do the job properly.  It is this lack of faith that will eventually lead him to Spain, and finally Africa.

I have heard it said that characters often take on lives of their own, but never really understood until my characters began to do so.  It is reason enough to write a novel.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 12, 2005 10:58 am

    Saw Salmen Rushdie Speak at the DMA last night (excellent by the way) and he was saying the exact same thing as you. Though he was talking about regular fiction rather than historical, he said that contrar to popular belief, the writer’s imagination DOES have limits. And it is the subtle boundaries tha the characters set fo themselves which create it. The character’s take on a mind of their own, so that if you try and have them act a certain way, it falls flat. The example he used was a character that is used to having things happen TO HIM instead of taking the intiative have doing things himself. Rushdie realized this as an unintended consequence of writing so he tried to encorporate some incidents in which the character takes charge of the situation. Tried multiple times, failed miserably, and gave up… the character was who he was, nothing and no one, not even him, could change the character’s personality.

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