As of writing this, I am 1,330 words into the novel. Technically I’ve written more like 2,000 words. I had tweeted before that I had completed my first thousand words. However, those thousand words are gone, nixed, obliterated, banished to that dismal place where words go to wait resurrection at a later date. Word purgatory, as it were. Well, that’s okay because now new words have arrived and seem to be much more stable than the last ones put down. In other words, I think I’ve at the very least figured out where the story should begin and how it should begin. Like the Chinese proverb says, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And I have no doubt that I’ll have to walk every inch of those thousand miles. I’m anticipating that this will be an extensive project. I don’t mean this just in the sense that it’s going to be a long novel, though I suspect it will, but also in the sense that I’m going to have to really dig deep into these characters. This is essentially their vehicle. In every writing project you do it’s important to have believable, multilayered characters but in this kind of story it’s particularly important because the plot is not what’s moving this story. If the characters don’t work then there really is no story. Essentially, this is a story about characters, it’s about drama or the internal struggles of characters, not so much about melodrama which would be the external struggles of characters. So, if there isn’t enough substance and depth to the major characters, the story is essentially a failure. As I’ve found out, inventing a person, one who isn’t cliche at this point, is actually pretty tough.
The novel I’m working on now begins with one main character, Otto, who has survived a very difficult past and who has not properly dealt with his experiences and the things he did to survive. Not exactly the most original backstory. We see these stories of survival and the cost of survival, whether bodily survival or mental survival, and the price it exacts all the time. Essentially it boils down to trauma. It’s because of this very basic setup that it’s so enduring. We all know trauma at some point in our lives so most people can relate to it. But because it’s been done so much there is a very high risk of just churning out cliches. This has been one of the difficult things with designing this main character. I have a strong affinity for him but his archetype as you could call it has gone through so many iterations that the cloth it’s made of is threadbare in many places. What I’m hoping is that I’m not maybe so much inventive enough but that I can be authentic enough that the character will come through as alive and real even if we have seen the archetype before. Part of what makes writing this character difficult, at least so far, is that I am constantly interrogating his motivations and character traits. I suppose that this goes along with writing a character that has components of such a well worn trope as this. However it certainly doesn’t make getting a consistent picture of the character any easier. Another thing I’m hoping to use to take a familiar trope and make it fresh is details. Tropes themselves aren’t bad. Just taking a trope and transplanting it whole and unrefined into a story is a terrible idea but in the end, every writer has to rely on tropes to some degree. After all, nothing is original. But it’s the details the writer chooses to add onto the framework of the trope that makes something appear original, very much like the way DNA makes each of us unique though we all share in common the four base pairs and we are all about 99.9% the same. It’s those crucial few modifications that give us our unique physiologies and characteristics. The choice of defining details is going to be critical in making this character stand out and be convincing.
Of course I could just be over-analyzing the whole thing and by over-analyzing it missing out on what could turn out to be a sympathetic main character. Only time will tell. The act of writing is clearing things up and I have a few drafts ahead of me before I am ready to put this out. In that time, I’ll surely be able to route out anything that doesn’t ring absolutely true to any of the characters. It’s actually sort of funny when I think about how every character I give this name to proves to be a problem for me. Though that’s more of the problem of not being able to properly express what I wanted to and actually fighting against the kind of story I wanted to write.
As long as I stay on track and keep writing, this problem will resolve itself. Creating these characters is like meeting someone new. You don’t know everything about someone the second you meet him or her. Even if this person gives you a complete biography from birth till the second you met him/her you still have only a bunch of facts. That isn’t what makes the person a person. It’s more about the stuff that isn’t obvious. And it seems to be the same in writing. You can’t know the character until you start to really get into his or her thoughts or you see the character in a tough situation that tests him/her in some way. I believe that there’s a lot to my character Otto that he hasn’t told me yet and may even hold back from me until the right situation. Characters tend to do that. They don’t always want to give up their secrets, even to the author. But that’s alright. In time and under the right circumstances they do and you learn something new, something you could have never planned about your character. It’s happened to me before while writing my novel for my English honors project. I realized there were things about my character I had never written into him but that just materialized seemingly while I wasn’t looking. And the best part was that those who read it probably supposed that I had intended the character to turn out the way he did when it was really almost beyond my control in a way.
Control is a big question in writing. Some writers need absolute control over a story and need to plot out exactly what will happen and when and how. Others start with a situation and run with it. Some even fall in between. I would be that last category. But I have to say that the more I write the more I realize that serendipity and chance plays a sizable role in creating a story and sometimes the more I try to control, the more I stifle my output. I often like to think that there is a connection between Zen and writing and this definitely sticks out as a subject where the two would be in agreement. You have to just go with it, be in the moment, and see where that takes you. Which is exactly what I’m going to try to do as I go forward.