Rule #2 of “The Unauthorized Rules of Writing”
When you say it out loud, this sounds like a rather ridiculous rule. Characters are not people. At least they don’t have physical substance. They sort of talk and walk around in your head. They are non-entities, figments of a writer’s imagination; so how on earth can a writer become attached to them in a personal way? That’s a hard question to answer. All I know is that as I was writing my first novel, Finding Ruby https://www.amazon.com/Finding-Ruby-Marianne-Scott/dp/0995877300/ref=dp_ob_title_bk, I kept running into a wall known as writer’s block. I knew the plot. I knew the ending (sort of) and I knew that the excitement had to peak and wane. Yet, there I was in front of my computer dumb as a doorknob without a single idea as to how to move the story forward. I lamented to my editor, Jenna Kalinsky. What she said nearly sent me into psychotherapy. I was shocked. We’ve been working together for years, she as my teacher and editor and founder of One Lit Place https://www.onelitplace.com/, a literary hub and collective and a place where writers can gather and have all the resources they need to succeed as writers. Meaning I’d thought she was a decent person. “Kill someone,” she said. I distinctly remember my reply. “I can’t kill anyone. I love my characters,” I said. Well!!!! Now what? I kept up my protest for about a week as I continued to search that empty receptacle of my mind for the next scene in my book. Nothing!
Desperate, I yielded to her suggestion but let it marinate for a while. The idea of killing a character was somehow akin to killing a member of my family. But, the more I thought about it, the more I saw merit in the elimination of a subordinate character, however distasteful it seemed. I realized there are times when people provoke you into ominous thoughts. I don’t like to admit it openly but I remember real life personal incidents when I wanted to quickly and efficiently bring about a person’s demise. Fortunately, these thoughts are fleeting albeit delightful. Thank goodness for laws against murder as it saved several of my bosses from an untimely yet satisfyingly (for me anyway) brutal death. As her advice ripened, it made me think. Can I exploit that dark side of my own personality? But, how would I justify such a thing? I found the answer in the Indiana Jones ‘knife to a gunfight’ scene. From my writer’s perspective, every time I watch it, the devil whispers in my ear and this time he won. After all, you do what you have to do. Maybe I did have the killer instinct. The problem is that becoming a literary executioner takes a bit of practice. I started with Leonard, a newly invented character, who I inserted into a scene and then masterfully crafted a shootout where my darlings (my beloved good guys) had to shoot not only him but two other bad guys in an attempt to save their lives. Ah, like a vampire getting her first tastes of human blood – it felt good. But just in case, I’d kept my therapist’s number handy.
After the endorphins settled, I started to feel guilty. No bad deed goes unpunished. A few chapters later I hit another wall. It was as if the writing gods were punishing me for doing such an evil deed. I was beginning to doubt that I’d ever finish my novel. Still in mental anguish from being such a bad influence on the moral values of my characters, I decided I needed more counselling. Yep! Jenna to the rescue again. Her solution? You guessed it; more killings, but this time a good guy had to die. It was like she thrust a knife into my gut. I have to say; this woman is good at what she does – very good indeed. I trusted her completely but this was a side of her I’d never seen before. Yet, she had keen instincts and knew how to break down that brick wall I was facing. Her advice has never failed me before. Jenna knew; when you’ve already had a taste of blood, the next killing is a bit easier and because I’m a quick learner I outdid myself. By the end of a rather heart wrenching and intense scene, two of my characters lay dead, in an inky pool of blood in the dirt of a country driveway. “Well done,” Jenna said.
‘My God. Did I really do that?’ I suffered, conflicted. Wasn’t an author’s writing a reflection of her moral principles? So why did this corruption feel so powerful? The answer is that I’d lost focus on what is real and what is just ‘writing’. It’s the separation of fact from fiction that liberates a writer to craft her story with outrageous details. Armed with this new skill, I knew I could kill any character that stood in the way of the completion of my novel. Love became ambition and to hell with any character who might be shot in the crossfire. I needed to finish the novel and really wanted an explosive and unexpected ending. It was a given that my antagonist had to die but sculpting the scene into a horrific finale would require the sacrifice of more of my beloveds. Because I was no longer emotionally tied to their safety, I could concentrate on the kind of drama it takes to hold the reader captivated until the very last word. How good is it when your reader says, “Damn, I didn’t expect that!”
Of all the attributes an author has to possess, viciousness somehow claws its way to the surface. For me it’s a lesson learned. Don’t fall in love with your characters because in writing you are not an angel nor are you the devil and you are definitely not a parent so allow your characters to find danger at every turn. It’s the story that has the final say.
Next blog – be descriptive but don’t over describe. This sounds confusing, I know, but too much of a good thing is bad. But then, what does a conflicted writer know? You might be surprised. Be sure to check in for Rule #3 of “The Unauthorized Rules of Writing.”