Sunday, November 19, 2006

NaNoWriMo, Take 5

I'm really struggling to make it to 50K this year. Part of the problem is that I kind of don't really know who my main character is. In the past I've always had that figured out because a) 3 of the 4 times I've previously done this thing, I was writing about characters I dreamed up about 20 years ago, and b) the one year I came up with something totally new, I started brainstorming about the characters and the storyline at the right time, ie in the 3 to 4 weeks before I started writing. This year I came up with the story and the characters and was all hot to get started... at the beginning of September. By the time November 1st hit, I was not the least bit into it. So although I'm still pacing myself and am on track to hit 50K by 11/30, it's all happening in a series of fits and starts, and I find myself just plain avoiding writing in a way I've never done during Nano before.

One very cool thing happened about a week ago, and that was that my main character turned unreliable. (See, I wasn't kidding when I said I didn't really know who she was!) I'd never had that happen before. That might sound kind of crazy, if you don't write -- the idea that your character might do or turn out to be something you didn't intend. I imagine characters in your more plot-driven stories probably don't get away from their writers quite so often, because they are completely in service to the plot. But those of us whose writing is character-driven know that sometimes the people we create have minds of their own. It's kind of like walking a really big dog who outweighs you -- you may be holding the leash, and you may be the one who feeds that dog and hands out the doggie treats, but every once in a while, however awesome that dog might be, it's going to drag you off the path and through the brush every once in a while.

Not only do I expect my characters to lead me off in unexpected directions -- I rely on it. Aside from the aforementioned characters I came up with 20 years ago, my approach to writing novels is like this: I come up with an idea -- not a plot, an idea -- and think up the characters who will bring that idea to life. Then I start writing and I see where the characters will take me. Though I count the characters as slightly more important, the idea, or concept, if you will, is pretty important too. The only time I've started a novel with characters only, it took me 10 1/2 years to finish. The characters did eventually lead me through a pretty decent story, but there was a lot of stalling before we got to the end of the path.

The unexpected detours characters make are one of the things that enrich your story. Last year I created a love interest for my main character, and was frustrated that practically whenever I put them in the same scene together, they'd end up arguing. After a while I got to thinking, how am I ever going to get these two together? But in the end, all the conflict they'd had made their coming together more believable. So even though I sometimes get annoyed when I'm trying to zig left and my characters want to zag right, I do generally trust them to take things in the right direction.

That's why I thought it was an encouraging sign when I discovered my main character was sort of unreliable. I'd written almost a whole chapter of her describing her life, but a few chapters later, she fell apart and the lead male character and I both found out at the same time that she hadn't quite told us everything. No wonder I didn't feel like I knew her. And who knows? She may have more secrets up her sleeve before we reach the end.

She's the only one who knows...

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