Last week I wrote about Michael Connelly, and a question I asked him that garnered a stern look and made me feel silly for asking it. I asked if Harry Bosch ever did or said anything that surprised him, and his answer was a definite no. I told this story to another writing friend, one whose judgment I truly respect, and her first words were, good question.
It got me thinking. How well do I really know my protagonist?
Taylor Jackson is the homicide lieutenant for Nashville Metro. She is young, tall, blonde, sharp and witty, tough as nails, and the kind of girl a gentlemen would love to sit down and have a beer with. I’ve planned her that way, want her to not be me, per se, but an extension of me. I want Taylor to have the best of everything, the funniest lines, the deepest courage, the strength of character that ensures her success.
So how is it this creature of my imagination can do or say things that surprise me?
Like I said, I’ve been thinking. And I realized that she doesn’t. I’ve been selling myself short in this department, assuming that more experienced writers are better equipped to explain their motivations, their process, their insights. Realizing that I’m just as connected with my protagonist was a relief, as well as a revelation. And a reminder to quit underestimating myself already.
I’m working on my third book with Taylor. I struggled with her character in the first book. I really didn’t like her very much. I think she was too strong, she was so damn capable and brilliant she was nearly a caricature of herself. Taylor was my imagination’s perception of what a successful female cop would be like, but I’d never had any contact with real women cops. I have a lot of male contacts, and I know Taylor appeals to them, but I was worried that she wouldn’t be realistic because I had nothing to base her on. I actually had planned to kill her off in a dramatic ending. All because I’d built this wisp of an idea into a person, and she kept doing things I didn’t plan for.
By book 2, ATPG, Taylor had mellowed a bit. She’s in love, practically against her will because there’s a whisper of neediness that goes along with being devoted to someone. She’s grown as a character, has fleshed out. I don’t hate her any more. I’ve embraced her, flaws and all. I’ve finally realized that she does and says the things she does because that’s who she is. Who I’ve made her into. An extension of some part of my psyche that respects women who are so capable, so strong that they don’t need.
Once I realized this, I finally figured out what Connelly meant. Bosch doesn’t surprise him because he created the character, with deliberate strokes of the pen. He is in control, not the book.
So this is where he and I differ. I’m in control of Taylor now, know what she’s going to say in a particular situation, know how she’s going to feel, how she’s going to whip her hair out of its ponytail and put it back up when she’s frustrated, know just the moment she’d say something to diffuse a situation. It’s the story that surprises me.
Remember that friend from earlier? We talked about this too – the process of creating the story. She does research, copious amounts of research, then writes, knowing full well where things are headed.
I, on the other hand, get a concept, try to write down an outline, get too enthusiastic to plan and start writing, do the first ten or fifteen chapters and realize nope, there needs to be something else, something different. For each book I’ve written, those openings end up being the scenes which bridge to the climax. It’s strange, and I can’t exactly explain it, but that’s what happens.
This is why I don’t like to outline, because the story doesn’t always go how I want it to. Which means I’m doing quite a bit of subconscious work on the manuscript in addition to writing it. That’s not all that bad, in my mind.
Maybe when I have 12 books under my belt, I’ll be able to feel like I’m in complete and utter control. I’m envious of writers who say they have the next eight books planned out, know exactly what’s going to happen in their series. For now though, I’m going to go with it, see where the story takes me, see what Taylor is going to do next.