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Food For Thought

I recently read (RE-read) a delightful book by Kasey Michaels, “Maggie Needs An Alibi,” about an author whose characters come to life and move into her apartment with her, complicating her life and helping her solve a murder (after a fashion). I admit that, the first time I read a book, I read just for the plot. I want to find out how it ends. The next time, I read it with a little more appreciation for the WAY the writer tells the story. I take notice of the way the story is organized and events presented. I pay more attention to the development of the characters, the visual descriptions, and the dialogue. After that, I’m busy gleaning little details I missed before and trying to figure out just how the author pulled it all off. It’s especially fun in the event of such an outlandish premise as Maggie having Regency-era English characters transplanted into her 21st century Manhattan apartment.
The premise of this story is easy to understand. I imagine nearly every writer has experienced the frustration of creating characters who won’t do what the writer wants them to do. Most of my writer friends agree that this happens when we develop strong characters with less than malleable personalities, who seem to take over their own destinies and highjack what we thought was OUR story. It’s happened to me time and time again, where I had to change my mind about the direction the story was headed because I couldn’t believably have a character behave in the way I wanted him to in order to carry my intended plot to its conclusion. It’s eerily close to real life in that people aren’t always who you think they are– or behave as you expect or want them to.
Maggie had developed a macho, handsome, swashbuckling, somewhat sarcastic charmer who took great risks to be heroic, considered himself superior to most people, and got away with it all. This character might have been charming and romantic in her novels but she found the “real” person to be exasperatingly uncooperative, convinced he was immortal and irresistible (because she’d written him that way).
It was a lesson for me. Would I like my characters if they were to turn into real people in my actual life? Could a villain be loveable on page five and still prove himself rotten to the core on page 97? I’d want him to be deceptively nice to begin with, but I’d want the reader to gradually begin to suspect he has a dark side. I want him to be able to show his true, hateful colors before the rest of the characters in the story have become fully aware of his real nature. But it’s unfair if the reader doesn’t end up with a sense of having suspected the truth all along. This, I believe, is one of the secrets of being a good story-teller. The reader should have a feeling that he is being allowed inside information, that the writer is giving him more information than the characters in the story are aware of.
Michaels’ tale is told mostly through her depictions of the characters’ personalities, their actions and dialogue. She doesn’t spend much time describing the landscape, the architecture, or people’s clothing except as it applies to the plot. Her hero’s Regency finery is touched on because it shows us how out-of-place the man is in the modern setting. She soon dresses him in a former lover’s abandoned clothing and we hear little more about it except as it applies to the story. I found this refreshing, as long passages of irrelevant description have always bored me to tears and caused many a story to bog down so that I lost interest. A bit of advice most writers give each other – show, don’t tell– helps ward off those unnecessary and tedious stretches of description.
Aside from relinquishing control to the characters, a writer runs the risk of being too obvious. A story I’ve been working on recently is concerned with a young married couple. Rather than simply begin by telling the reader that the husband is a control freak and verbally abusive to his wife, I tried to weave those traits into his actions and dialogue. I thought I was just giving hints here and there, but the members of my writers group barely got past the first page before they had him pegged for a jerk. Now I have a different problem from the one I thought I had. If I continue to keep his dialogue and his actions in keeping with the character as I envisioned him, will it be overkill? Way too much when the reader already has him figured out? How can I continue telling the story, and keep him in character, without dwelling on his unsavory temperament every time I mention him? If I ease up on him, will the reader be misled and start to sympathize with him– or decide that he’s magically reformed?
I can understand how Maggie got herself into such a mess. The control freak that I invented has won– he’s taken control of my story!