A common occurrence in my “fiction writing process” – note the three initials – is a need for me to stop and ask my Marquee characters “What are you all about, really? And how does it bear on what’s happening in this scene?”
Such moments are important to me. You see, I don’t really have a process of the formal sort. Some writers outline or synopsize; I do that too, but I almost never cleave to it in the actual act of writing. Some writers write character biographies; I’ve done that on occasion, but the finished product seems to diverge from my early conceptions rather dramatically. Some writers write out backstories to which they can make reference as needed; as useful as that seems, I find it more productive to make actual, publishable stories out of something that demands that much work. So ultimately, I’m flying by eye and feel rather than a process of the sort other writers that prefer more preparatory organization would recognize.
That makes it important that I become intimate with my characters. (No, not in the Biblical sense. Get your mind out of the gutter.) I need to be able to “ring them up” on my mental telephone and converse with them when my plots get thorny.
Sitting across a cafe table from Louis Redmond, Todd Iverson, or Stephen Graham Sumner can be a most helpful experience. Their voices are familiar to me, as you would expect of an old friend. A chat with one of them can often help me to break a mental logjam about how to resolve a critical conflict. Louis is particularly good on morality and ethics; Todd provides all the engineering expertise anyone could use; and Sumner’s grip on the law goes all the way to its finest details.
Of course, others of my Marquee characters are harder to converse with. For example, before he was wounded in that assault on Morelon House, Martin Forrestal made a great conversational companion. These days, he’s always trying to remember how he felt about this or that episode. He usually fails. Martine Arnault could be good company, but getting her out of Evenings to Remember is tough and keeping her from returning to it is damned near impossible. As for Devin MacLachlan, forget it. All he wants to talk about are his books.
Of course, I’m half-kidding here. The inventions of my mind can’t converse in any real sense. Nor can they “know” anything that I haven’t taught them. Still, by compelling them to speak in characterologically consistent ways, I can reacquire my grip on the most important element of any story: the motivations of the Marquee character group.
It’s a bit like Stanislavsky method acting. If you know your context to a sufficient degree of specificity, and you know which of your characters’ desires, fears, and convictions would come into play in that context, you can get them to write their own lines – in effect, to write your scene for you. That conduces to the kind of fictional plausibility we call realism.
What do you think, fellow scribblers? Have you used a technique of this sort? If so, how well did it work for you? If not, consider giving it a try and let me know!