What writer hasn’t grappled with the sense of playing God while writing characters? It is a seductive feeling. Power. Control. Bossing characters around so that they do and say what I want. Wow. Certainly can’t do that with people in real life. But guess what? It doesn’t work anymore with fictional characters than it does in real life. That is, if you want your characters to truly be themselves. I’ve experienced characters staging protests and coups when I’ve forgotten my true place as the writer and tried to play God, and so now that I’m doing lots of revision work, it’s time to remind myself just what remaining true to characters really means.
The first thing is to step back and watch. As I read my writing, or anyone else’s, that’s what I’m doing mentally. I wouldn’t try to interfere with someone else’s characters, and so I will not interfere with my own. And actually, that possessive “my” is relative — at some point, characters become their own people with their own personalities, thoughts, and feelings, motivations, behavior, and speech, and when that happens, that’s when a writer knows he or she has succeeded in creating characters who are as real as people in the real world. Part of getting to that point is believing they are real people.
While doing revision work, it’s important to set aside all my own ideas and preconceptions about each character, and just watch them as I read. Who are they? What do they want in the context of the story? What will they do to get it? What is their worst fear? What is their primary emotional flaw? Watch the characters in their behavior and speech to learn the answers to these questions. I’m usually not surprised by the primary characters but sometimes a secondary character will shock or surprise me, and then that opens up possibilities for the story that I had not seen before.
How a person talks reveals an awful lot about their character, education, and background. Pay attention to the rhythm of the speech, to the use of language, to the choice of words. Pay attention to how characters talk to each other.
When I was working on Vasia Bartyakov in Perceval’s Secret, I knew that he was Russian, and that his English would reflect the influence of his native tongue. But what really came through to me from him with his English was a sense of his natural exuberance. He’s old enough to have some idea of the way the world works, but still young enough to believe in optimism and the inherent goodness of human beings. He loves life. He loves music. Every word out of his mouth and the way he said it reflected that. I learned all that by stepping back and listening to him, and stopped myself from putting words in his mouth that I believed would move the story forward or reveal character. What I learned from Vasia is that characters love to reveal themselves through their speech if you shut up and listen.
Write what you see and hear. Describe it as closely as you can to what you saw and heard from your characters. I call this “witnessing.” This is where the give and take between the writer and her characters really comes into play, and it’s important that the writer remain true to her characters, i.e. be worthy of their trust and belief in her by being faithful to what she’s seen and heard.
In the revision stage, it’s just as important to remain true to the characters, to insure that even if dialogue needs to be cleaned up for whatever reason, the writer preserves the original intent and meaning of that dialogue. What I most often run into with dialogue is that I need to relax it, make it more like the spoken speech that it is rather than only speech that is read. People rarely speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences. I want my writing to be the best it can be in order to be an accurate and trustworthy witness to the lives of my characters.
Characters may be watching the writer as closely as the writer watches them to determine if the writer can be trusted with their story. They give themselves over to writers, and at the same time, writers need to respect them and the process that the writer and characters are both part of. The next time you’re tempted to play God with your characters, just think of how much you may hate being bossed around, controlled and manipulated, and treat your characters the way you want to be treated yourself.