How Characters Write Themselves
By Matthew Shields
Paul and I met about a year ago because both our stories involved bullying. I'm writing a sci-fi adventure story and the main character is a 16 year old boy who was adopted and has grown up on a world of giants. Everyone is two or three feet taller than him and he is having a hard time feeling like he will ever fit in. Without getting into the details of how he ended up there, I want to explain how I started writing his story and the problems I ran into and how I fixed them. Or how they sort of fixed themselves.
Now first of all, you are NOT supposed to do this. You're supposed to get through your first draft and THEN go back and fix everything. But my writing was not flowing and I felt like I had to change something, and this is what happened: I originally opened the story with Jareth Dakk and his family at the skyport, where they are embarking on a cruise ship in space to see Jareth off to a school on another planet where he will fit in. Its not explained why he is going to this other planet for school, but he has a cast and sling on his arm. I mostly described the world of giants and how cool the anti-gravity shuttle looked and then how cool the space cruiser was. I revealed some things about Jareth's family, and there was some mild action as Jareth played Hide N' Hunt with his brothers and then ran into the first girl he had ever met that was his size and not a giant, Deila. This was all happening before the REAL action of the story, when Jareth and Deila witness a murder and are shot out of the space ship in an escape pod and get stranded. It was all interesting and nice.
But that was the problem. It wasn't a great story and it was basically sucking so bad that no one would read past the beginning and get to the good action (okay, that's my opinion). I could just feel that there was something structurally wrong with it.
As I tried to figure out how I might tweak what I had and keep going, I had the thought that it was all just too complicated. It felt like there was too much to explain. Why is everyone so much taller than him? Why is his arm broken? Why is he going to school on another planet? Why was he adopted by giant parents? As I thought about how I might simplify things, I had the thought, "Why doesn't he just run away?"
And suddenly it clicked.
Why is he running away? Because a bully broke his arm and his brother made him feel like he was a big burden on his family because everyone is always worrying about him. He wants to run away to another world where he's the same height as everyone else and he might find a girl that would date him. It was so much easier to understand and convey to an audience. And I could even picture Jareth breathing a sigh of relief and looking sternly at me, like he was relieved and wondering why I hadn't gotten this sooner.
I had heard about characters "writing themselves" and this was one of those moments for me. "Its cliche! Its been done!" voices were crying in my head, but I just knew that this was a better opening. It creates better action and reveals more about Jareth's character and kicks the story off rather than sloshing along until the real action suddenly stands up. I could focus on Jareth's bullying and how he has always had to be so watchful and street smart in order to not get beat up and stay in school despite his worrying mother's wishes for him to be home schooled. It meant that the reader could sympathize with him better, seeing him beat up and feeling like he's lost his pride and his dreams on his birthday. Plus, he's not just running away, he's running away to another planet, so now we're watching him figure out how to stow away on a space cruiser. It was what Jareth, the character, would have done.
Why didn't I start off like this? I know that one of my weaknesses is that I don't beat on my characters enough. I like to protect them. I don't think I wanted Jareth to run away previously because, hey he's just been beat up so bad his arm was broken. Now he has to run away, too? Leave his family? I felt so bad for Jareth, but realized THAT is what grabs people's attention - someone pushed to the edge, pushed to an extreme, and watching what they do.
And think about it. Every great story has a character that gets HAMMERED on. Luke Skywalker loses his parents, joins a quest, journeys across space, learns an ancient religion and mental skills, gets shot at by 100 storm troopers, almost crushed to death, sees his mentor killed, then faces death in a star fighter and miraculously DESTROYS AN ENEMY STRONGHOLD THE SIZE OF A MOON. Think of Bilbo, or Neo, or even Tony Stark. You've got to shake your hero UP!
And the funny thing is, it seems to be a true principal of life, too. We face trials and then reap rewards. And maybe that's what we love about stories. They remind us that despite the trials, the tears, the heartbreaks, that there is joy and beauty and love. That it IS worth it to hang in there while its dark and we keep that flame of hope lit.