Late in the week, I was stopped by a colleague in the hall outside my classroom, and we exchanged the usual pleasantries about our respective holidays. And since she has read my first novel, Gryphon’s Heir, and is awaiting its sequel, Gryphon’s Awakening, with thinly veiled impatience, she asked, at one point in our conversation, what I like to think of as Standard Question #1: “Did you get any writing done?” Pleased by my affirmative reply, she proceeded immediately to its corollary, Standard Question #2: “So, is it almost finished?”
“Well, I’m not sure,” I replied thoughtfully. “Storyline-wise, knowing where I want this book to end (a cliff hanger, I’m afraid) yes, it is. But the problem is that Rhiss (my protagonist) and his cronies keep doing and saying unexpected things, which have to be addressed and which keep adding on to the narrative.”
My colleague gave me a look I’ve become quite familiar with whenever I say things concerning the nuts and bolts of the writing process to folks who aren’t writers. It’s actually rather similar to the expression parents make when their children do or say something totally nonsensical. I call it the Expression of Polite Disbelief While Wanting To Smack Someone Upside The Head: part perplexed, part sceptical, part exasperated… with just a dash of incomprehension thrown in for good measure.
“But you’re writing it,” she observed with some asperity, accurately (but irrelevantly) enough. “Don’t you know what the characters are going to do?”
Ay, there’s the rub, as Will would say. In fact, it’s a classic case of post hoc ergo propter hoc, you know. (Which is your Latin lesson for the day. The literal translation is “after this, therefore, because of this.” Huh? I hear you grunt. Well, loosely, it refers to the common but usually mistaken idea that simply because one thing/event follows another, the second thing/event must have been caused by the first. You’re welcome.) In writing terms, yes, I’m writing the story… but it doesn’t automatically follow that this means I know what my characters are going to do. At least, not all the time. Or even some of the time, come to that.
Now, this is not a bad thing, not at all, although non-writers --- and some writers, too, come to that --- frequently see it that way. Personally, I think it’s rooted in this insane preoccupation our entire society has with the notion of control, and being in control. (Which is, when you think about it, a completely farcical preoccupation. Why? Because the truth, evidently unpalatable to a lot of people, is that We’re Not. Yup. Really. We can play the Argument Game on this if you want. I’m going to win, though.)
As far as writing is concerned, famed science fiction author Ray Bradbury put it this way: “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” I wasn’t aware of this particular piece of pithy advice years ago when I first began writing what ultimately became Gryphon’s Heir… but I was soon following it, nonetheless. And nowadays, that’s what I tend to do pretty much most of the time.
Don’t get me wrong: in spare moments, particularly when I’m not near my trusty old Dell Inspiron but am near pen and paper, I do plot out The Ghost Of Scenes Yet To Come. (It’s a great way to look busily productive at a meeting, by the way, as though you’re faithfully taking notes. Well, you are… just not notes concerning the meeting. Back in the Dark Ages, I also used to do this during particularly boring university classes. It used to impress the hell out of my professors, and I felt like I was actually doing something productive with my time, so as far as I was concerned, it was a win-win. And yes, I did pass those courses. A large part of both my undergrad degrees seems to have been spent formally validating things I already knew. Thanks for asking.) And I do attempt to utilize these notes. I’m just not especially surprised or distressed anymore when characters squint at those same notes, look at me with raised eyebrows and jaundiced expression, and say, “Nope. Not gonna do that. Gonna do this instead. See ya round, chump.”
So, when writing, I tend to play Follow the Hero (and the other characters, too, for that matter). It works very well, and while it can be frustrating when they do things I don’t like, it is most often both entertaining and revelatory… although it’s quite difficult to explain to non-writers. They find it hard to grasp that fictional characters can be just as real as the people standing in front of you… in fact, truth be told, at times, more real.
Returning to my colleague and her question… “Well, no, not always,” I admitted. “No more than I know what you’re going to do. Story characters can be maddeningly independent, you know.”
She nodded uncertainly, smiled tentatively… and suddenly recalled something of vital importance she had to do in her classroom. I watched her retreat down the hall. She thinks I’m crazy, I thought to myself.
Ah, you’re not crazy, I replied. Just lovably eccentric.