“Before I write down one word, I have to have the character in my mind through and through. I must penetrate into the last wrinkle of his soul.”
I stumbled upon this quote recently and have been thinking about it ever since – in relation to the characters I write about, the characters I read about, and the characters fellow writers have crafted so lovingly. I don’t know about y’all, but one of my absolute favorite parts of the writing process (other than, of course, actually drafting) is the initial getting-to-know-you phase. It’s a honeymoon period of sorts, during which we’re so lucky, as writers, to get a glimpse into our characters’ lives. Their personalities, their motivations, their likes and dislikes, their passions, their triumphs, their weaknesses, their soft spots, their beauty, sometimes even their beautiful disasters … these strokes all combine to paint pictures of people we’re beginning to understand as if we’ve been lifelong friends. I still remember the adrenaline pumping through my veins when I first sat down to brainstorm and outline both WITH A LITTLE BIT OF LUCK and REFLECTIONS OF ME. It was a bit different with DEAR ELLIE and again with the manuscript I’m working on now, because most of the cast is comprised of characters who already feel like family, but still, it’s always an amazing, enlightening, inspiring journey to learn even more about the people who fill the pages of my books and the space in my heart. I think that’s one of the most awesome things about writing: we never truly know everything about our characters. There is always more to uncover. And in much the same way, their stories never unfold quite as we’ve planned. I outline loosely – a general sense of beginning/middle/end and some major turning points along the way, but inevitably, my characters end up taking their own paths. They tell their own stories. They teach me things I never knew. Sometimes I get to channel my thoughts and emotions into them; sometimes they get to channel theirs into me.
I am nine chapters and one epilogue away from finishing the first draft of this manuscript, which also happens to be the final one I’m writing about Sofie’s journey (SO MANY TEARS AND FEELINGS just at the thought of tying this story up for good, but that’s a post for another day). It has been a joy and a privilege to watch her life twist and turn, bend and blossom. Writing these three novels has been, hands down, one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. And when I look back to where Sofie was on the first page of REFLECTIONS OF ME, when I think of how far she’s come, how much she’s endured, how strong she’s become, how hopeful her future is, and how bright a star the whole cast will be reaching for, will be holding in the palms of their hands … it is both crazy and awesome. I am so proud of my book-babies and so indescribably happy for them. They’ve survived a lot. They’ve learned a lot. They’ve accomplished a lot. They’ve taught me a lot, too. Know what? I’ll be forever grateful for that.
I read a blog post once – not sure where, or even which agent, editor, or author penned it – that said something to the effect of this: your main character should finish each chapter in a different place than he or she began. In today’s world of so many blogs, and so much advice, and so overwhelming an amount of information, that idea has stayed with me always. It’s something I actively consider while writing. Has Sofie changed at all over the course of these past ten pages? What has she realized? What has she achieved? Why have her feelings evolved? How have her feelings evolved? When did she go from Point A to Point B, and are the other characters going on the journey alongside her? Or will it take them longer to get there? Obviously that’s the point of every novel as a whole – for the characters to grow, to bloom, to better their lives … and I think it’s so neat to imagine each single chapter as a microcosm for that. Sure, some chapters will see more change than others. We all have ebbs and flows to our lives, and our characters are no different. But still, it is truly an awesome thing to see these people make progress one step at a time. Sometimes it’s a step forward and sometimes backward. Always, it’s an important part of who they are. And, I think, also an important part of who we are as writers, and as people, too.
How about you? Do you plan out every nuance of your characters ahead of time, or do you let them lead the way? Do you believe that each chapter should end in a different place than it started?