Character Issues

Jeffrey Cohen

I have a character who’s not behaving.

In the midst of the second book in a series that hasn’t started yet (if you can follow that), I have a character I can’t quite get a handle on. I thought I understood this guy perfectly before I began writing; in fact, I’d modeled him specifically on someone whose personality I understand very well. But he’s refusing to be that guy, and while he’s not exactly doing things I didn’t have planned, I’m finding it more difficult than I expected to get him across the way I wanted.

This is a new problem for me; usually, characters are my least troubling aspect of writing. I love the little goofballs, from the least prominent in the story to the ones who dominate the book. I write them spontaneously, for the most part, and I’m used to them generally behaving themselves as they go, even if they do something a little unexpected every once in a while just for variety.

The current situation presents a new challenge, which is something writers both crave and dread. Writing the damn books is hard enough without being able to fall on old tricks, but on the other hand, having a different set of puzzles to solve keeps the process fresh in the writer’s head, while making the writing more interesting (in theory) because you’re not, um, falling back on old tricks.

Still, did this guy have to start being a pain in Chapter Three? He couldn’t have come on for a brief appearance late in the book, when I’m confident in the work? I’m going to be stuck with this character for another 200 pages or so, and so far, I’m not in the groove with him. It’s frustrating.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

I read a few weeks ago that some Great Big Author (I forget which one, but you’d recognize the name) was absolutely aghast at the idea that characters ever do things the author didn’t expect. After all, a character comes from your own mind, not from an external source. They can’t do things you don’t ask them to do; it’s psychologically impossible, unless you have a considerably more serious problem than Writer’s Block (another affliction in which I don’t believe). So it makes perfect sense that the Great Big Author would mock the idea that characters have free will. It is, after all, just a silly idea.

Except that it has happened to me.

My process is not what you’d call extremely well organized. I don’t outline; I don’t take notes. Once the story is sufficiently developed in my head (sometimes after years of cooking), I sit down and start writing. I usually have a good notion of where the major sequences–for mystery, that would include the murder and the discovery of important clues, as well as the solution–are going to fall, and how they’ll be presented. But that’s about it. I put the characters into situations, and then let them work on how to deal with them, based on their personalities. I never operate under the delusion that the work isn’t coming from my own head, but I certainly don’t systematize it ahead of time. Stuff happens when it happens.

In my second novel, A FAREWELL TO LEGS, Aaron Tucker, the freelance reporter and reluctant sleuth, is in Washington, DC to investigate a crime. He meets with a local PD detective with whom he has a bantering relationship–Aaron has a bantering relationship with just about everybody–and they discuss the crime. Aaron teases the cop on the lack of clues being discovered, as the victim in this case was a prominent politician and the investigation is a high priority. Aaron puts forth the statement that the DC police haven’t even found any DNA at the crime scene, and you’d think they’d be able to come up with something that would point them in a direction.

Now, when writing a chapter, I’m usually looking for the ending first. If I know where I’m going to end up, which piece of information–usually meant to get the reader to keep going to the next chapter–will be revealed, then I can write the scene. It’s a screenwriting trick, and I use it to keep my momentum going. In this case, Aaron’s teasing was going to lead to the statement by the policeman that some DNA, from a suspect’s hair, was discovered. But I couldn’t decide how to make it dramatic and not reveal the suspect’s name (I had no idea whose hair it was yet) at the same time.

I kept writing dialogue, as that’s my favorite part of the process, and the detective did indeed tell Aaron that DNA from a hair was discovered at the scene. Aaron, as seems natural, asked him why the cops didn’t just go and arrest the person whose hair had been found.

And the cop said, “He’s dead. (The character) was executed seven years ago.”

I remember typing that, reading it over, and saying out loud, “WHAT?”

It sounded awfully cool, though, and since this was a point in the book where Aaron should be running into more questions, rather than solutions, I left it in. But then, I had to figure out how that could be true.

I’m not going to tell you how I resolved the situation (my publisher still has plenty of books in his basement, and a guy’s got to make a living), but the point is that I didn’t know the character was going to say that before I wrote it. I hadn’t planned it, obviously, and I didn’t have an explanation at hand when the scene was finished. But because it seemed like the right thing, I kept the statement, and tried to work on a plausible solution for that mystery, which in my not-so-humble opinion, I think I managed.

So don’t tell me that characters don’t have a certain life of their own. Because if they don’t, and that incident is still true–and it is–then I’m hearing voices, and I’d prefer not to take that public just yet.

Meanwhile, Tuesday is Election Day. Get off your butt and vote.

4 thoughts on “Character Issues

  1. Mark Terry

    At the risk of sounding like I have serious mental problems (moot point: I’m a fulltime writer), sometimes when I’m having a problem getting the handle on a character, or if I’ve been away from a character too long, I’ll have a conversation with them. It might go something like this:

    Hey Derek, how you been?

    Go away. I’m on vacation.

    Were on vacation. It’s time to get back to work. Sorry.

    Screw you. I don’t want to go back to work.

    So I’ve noticed. But the boat’s heading back to Baltimore and you’re about to get called into action again. By the way, where’s Irina?

    Dropped her off at St. Bart’s so she can fly back home.

    To never be heard from again?

    You tell me, you’re the writer, asshole!


    Now, I don’t like that to go on too long. I would prefer Derek telling me what’s going on in his life in the book I’m working on, but sometimes by taking a second to have a conversation with a character, I find out what’s, uh, on their minds, so to speak.


  2. Daniel Hatadi

    It’s all make-believe in the end, the only difference is what part of the brain it comes from. Personally, I like accidents–they can lead to some of the most interesting consequences.


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