One of the freeing – and terrifying – things about writing a novel is when the characters take over.
In The Darkness Before Them one character in particular made it very, very clear that they were much more important than I realised. Naturally, yon character didn’t tell me this right from the off – like so many people in my life, my characters breezily assume that deadlines are for other people. Instead, they waited until I was about halfway through before stridently making the case for greater involvement.
I’m not saying it wasn’t annoying, but The Darkness Before Them is so much the better for it. More than that, the sequel – The Fire Within Them – became a very different beast … but I’m getting ahead of myself.
(For the record, a similar thing happened in Legacy of Ash, it has to be said. Sevaka was almost cut from the story at one point, but now it’s impossible to imagine Legacy of Steel or Legacy of Light without her. Well done her for speaking up!)
Despite the frustration these forthright characters engender, I’ve always been a big fan of getting out of the characters’ way and leaving them to it.
And when they take umbrage at what the plot wants them to do, I kill them off.
Mostly, I try to listen. After all, they’re living the world 24/7. Me? I’m just visiting. I know how whimsical that sounds, but how else explain the unarguable instinct that warns against doing this or that because it would be out of character for our gallant (or tangentially so) protagonist, sidekick or moustache-twirling villain?
The problem is that characters, being fictional, tend to have very quiet voices that get lost in the grind of the real world day-to-day.
But that’s okay.
I’m going to teach you a trick to hearing your characters even when the world is loud.
We’re all familiar with the idea that characters are built by their choices. These are often “sacrifice X to save Y” dilemmas of some kind, most commonly short-handed as Trolley Problems. If a fight breaks out in an alleyway a character might choose to put themselves in harm’s way to help the victim (hurrah!). Alternatively, they might elect not to take the risk and leave the victim to fend for themselves (booo!).
Less acknowledged is that for every positive choice a character makes, others slip past unremarked because the character never recognised there was a decision to be made. They never even thought about getting involved. It’s just a thing that happened nearby. It might not even rate a mention in their inner monologue. They never even boarded the trolley, in other words.
Leaving a victim to fend for themselves is a choice that says something about your character. However, so does that character not realising that there was a moment of intervention in the first place, even – and this is the important part – if your reader doesn’t realise it either because you never gave them that information.
With me so far? Good. Stick with it.
How can your reader know how these non-choices shape the character if they don’t know that these non-choices exist? They can’t, of course. But we’re not talking about the reader’s relationship with your character. We’re talking about your relationship with your character. Does the uproar in a market square include a plaintive cry for help from a bystander in an alley? You know. You’ve already built the scene in your head. Depending on the setting, this might be a rare occurrence or so commonplace as to not be remarkable.
Either way, somewhere along the road you’ve decided if your character is going to notice the cry for help and not care, not care enough to notice or not even care enough to recognise that there might be a cry of help to notice.
This is your character talking to you.
Every bit of scene setting, every snippet of world building that goes by the wayside? It’s not just you making choices, it’s your characters making choices through you. Especially when it doesn’t matter to the plot either way. And the best bit? Even if you don’t hear your characters speaking when you’re writing the scene, you can re-read it and listen harder. Discount the conscious omissions made for plot reasons, character development, world-building or because you feared your editor was going to give you a hard time. What’s left – that wonderful, unspoken negative space around what was actually said – is where your character speaks. And only you can hear it. You’ve actually been hearing it all along.
The question is: have you been listening?
It’s the sum of these moments – these decisions made without conscious choice – that make your characters adamant that they know best. That the plot, the synopsis, your carefully crafted plans and meanly hoarded sanity can all go hang, because I’m going to go over there and do that instead, thank you very much.
When this happens, listen. Let it happen. Because your character aren’t your characters at all, really. Or at least, they’re not just characters – they’re the piece of you that’s telling the story for the story’s sake.
And when it comes down to it, isn’t that why you’re writing the story in the first place?
Read The Darkness Before Them by Matthew Ward
These are dark times for the Kingdom of Khalad. As the magical mists of the Veil devour the land, the populace struggles beneath the rule of ruthless noble houses and their uncaring immortal king.
Kat doesn’t care about any of that. A talented thief, she’s pursuing one big score that will settle the debt that destroyed her family. No easy feat in a realm where indentured spirits hold vigil over every vault and treasure room. However, Kat has a unique talent: she can speak to those spirits, and even command them. And she has no qualms using her power to her advantage.
Kat’s not a hero. She just wants to be free. To have her old life back. But as rebellion rekindles and the war for Khalad’s future begins, everyone—Kat included—will have to pick a side.