Characters. They are creeping up on me.

Like a paranoid schizophrenic, I find myself listening to voices; peering into shadows to find the shapes concealed there in the Big Empty. Unlike John Nash, I am obliged to acknowledge that these shades are present: They might have something valuable to tell me.

Trouble is, some of those characters I neither know nor like. At least not yet.

Not liking a character can be an advantage—for a while, anyway. McGill Forester in The Spiritkeeper, Byrne Davies in Everything…each of these characters is based upon the worst, the thorniest, the most insecure parts of myself. I used those icky qualities to their advantage, as a foundation for transformation.

In a new character, one who has not, as yet, wormed his way into the writer’s soul, that dislike is a whole other thing.

In a good character, one must also love what one dislikes—the Romance of Wrong. One must embrace the polarizing forces of quirk and complexity. A good character has a complicated purity about him/her…he or she boils with light, and some of that light may well be made of darkness.

A good character carries the potential of being the car wreck from which neither writer nor reader can turn away. The conflict that drives his/her story is as much internal as external…but to own it, the writer must first buy it.

Where an emptiness is found in a character, one will also finds serious restless-writer-discontent. At least that’s true for me. And even that law of literary thermodynamics has its exceptions. In Everything, the main character’s “not-ness” was an advantage: Not-ness was the quality from which the “everything” of Everything could grow. Not-ness is a stage on which some greater drama can play out. And still, the character without depth should be a rarity. The cipher-character should be strategy, not habit.

But back to the voices in the writer’s head. Back to the Big Empty.

In this, my note-taking-research-reading-listening-to-two-ayem-whisperings stage, I cast into the emptiness for clues and cues. I need to wear the character like a second skin. I need to listen in on his/her thoughts. It fidgets the crap out of me when I don’t know a character’s name: During the Big Empty phase of Spiritkeeper, I spent most of a three-hour drive bouncing names into the solo quiet of the car until one of them sang to me…and that discovery was the last of countless other hours of searching. It drives me nuts(ier) when I don’t know what a character does for a living or eats for breakfast. When the character has no face, I am plagued by ghosts.

Name, face, profession, breakfast choices, contents of clothes closet: All those details will come to me when they’re ready. I know they will. They always do. Like trains, characters arrive on their own schedules, not the writer’s. They will arrive when I least expect them to, and they will carry their own music with them. In the meantime, I must replace the adrenaline of The Fidgets with Zenlike patience. The Big Empty must be filled with surrender and the will to listen.

Waiting. That’s my job. That’s what writers do.

 

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