For years I was always secretly a bit amused by actors who loudly proclaimed the great lengths they went to in researching and “becoming” their characters. Figuring out every little detail of their character’s life: how he or she would eat a peanut butter sandwich, what they’d say when answering the phone, what they’d wear, which team they’d root for…stuff that wasn’t in the script, wasn’t on the screen and only they would ever know. Why bother? So much easier to move my fictional people around on the mental stage and have them fall in and out of the adventures I wanted to have happen, willy nilly. The story was everything. Wasn’t it? Retroactive apologies to every actor I ever secretly smirked at – I’m sorry, I know better now!
You see, I was blessed with two daughters who are actors, among other creative endeavors. Their friends in high school and college were actors. I heard many a discussion about character and how to play the character believably on stage. I started to get it! Along with this understanding came a better handle on the necessity for stage business, setting and props – two talking heads on a bare stage will only be interesting to an audience if you’ve got the best actors in the world. Otherwise the play (or novel) reads as confusing—and boring.
If you hear me complaining that my characters won’t do what I want, or that the plot is going in a different direction than I expected, it’s because once I’ve really thought out who they are, what they care about, what life experiences they’ve had, then I can’t just make them cross the river, kiss the girl (or the hot guy), fight the dragon/snake/alien thing. Not unless that action fits into their framework as a person.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting my characters to walk into my kitchen in sunny California and help themselves to coffee. I know they’re fictional creations of my lively brain!
I recently wrote a short story in my ancient Egyptian paranormal universe where one character came from a novel I’ve got out on submission right now. I know all about him, his childhood, his dreams, how he feels about women…yup, even his favorite food (quail). He wasn’t the main character in this Tale of the Nile. But he took over the first draft, overshadowing the people whose story I was intending to tell. You see, because I knew him so well, I kept falling back to having him take the actions, speak the key pieces of dialogue, while the others, who I had not thought out in as much detail, hung back on the sidelines.
I’m glad he’s such a fully realized character—not complaining—but I realized I had to stop and think through the rest of the players in a lot more detail before tackling any future drafts. And now the story is – I hope – much stronger and not about him, although he has a role to play. He’s got his own novel to take center stage!