Thoughts From the Morning Commute – Controlling Characters

Pegasus has long been my symbol for imagination. You put wings on a horse and imagination takes flight. Of course, my fondness for Pegasus may have been fostered by the number of trips we would make by car from Southern California to Northern Washington during my childhood. We made the trek at least twice a year, and invariably we would gas up at the Mobil stations. So the trips were punctuated with occasional stops at a Mobil station to fuel up the car, and we would all tumble out and rush for the bathroom. You had to take care of business while you had the chance because Dad didn’t stop unless necessary (and fuel was the only thing necessary in his book). While we were pulling out of the station, I would take one last, longing look at the Red Pegasus and start imagining myself anywhere but in the car, wishing I could ride on its back as it whisked me quickly to my destination. I was prone to motion sickness and had two pesky brothers who would pester me to death, so escape into imagination was the only sane approach to those road trips.

All of that is to say that I have spent my whole life spinning stories to myself for entertainment and escape. During our trip back from San Diego on Saturday, Denny (hubby) and I had a conversation about Nowhere Feels Like Home and where the story line was going after this book. Denny kept pitching me ideas of what the characters should do (somehow his version always seems to have characters killing each other off – a guy thing??), while I tried to explain what was missing from the current manuscript, and how I was struggling with pulling it together so I could continue certain story threads, but that the characters weren’t cooperating. That conversation came back to me this morning on the way to work because I know it must seem very strange to him when I say that I’m not in control of my characters. Denny always looks at me blankly when I say that and then says, “But you have to be in control, the characters will do what you want. You’re the one writing it.” Sure, I have all of the responsibility of weeding out the bad parts and tightening up the prose, but my characters don’t necessarily go in the direction that I want them to. . .and that’s a good thing.

I can always tell when I go back and reread a passage, when I, as the author, have been intrusive and have been too forceful trying to make my characters do things. In my mind, it’s like all of a sudden they turn into stick figures and lose that well fleshed out person I had in my mind moments ago. And seriously, have you tried to get a rebellious teenager to do anything except what they want to do? If I try to make Katie do anything she’s not leading the way on, she fades on me and I’m left holding nothing. Nada. Zip. Writing comes to a crunching halt, and it’s not the pause to allow the scene to flesh out in your mind. A total and complete dead stop.

So to me, the idea that I’m in control of my manuscript is somewhat laughable. I type, but the inspiration comes from letting the story unwind in my mind without fetters, just like all those years ago as we pulled away from the Mobil station when I would fly away with Pegasus on the wings of fantasy.

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