I have been playing with the idea of this entry for a while. What has held me back is that I can’t attribute the origin of the concept.
While at Book Expo this year- I know it was the librarian’s lunch on the first day- one of the authors speaking talk about how a totally different, famous author once talked about how she talked to and lived with her characters while she was writing her books. I am about 90% sure the famous author was Maya Angelou since she had just passed away and everyone wanted to remember her in different (and beautiful) ways. I know the person who said this at the lunch was one of the authors speaking. I just can’t remember which one.
It’s not really important who said it about who originally said it. I just hate to not attribute a quote correctly. I am a librarian. If you were there and you remember the details, feel free to comment so I can correct things.
This got me thinking about the characters I write and how well I know them. I was already preparing for the July edition of Camp NaNoWriMo. I knew a very simple idea of what I wanted to write. I knew, like I had done with Pride and Prejudice in April, I wanted to give a modern spin to my other favorite Austen novel: Persuasion. Like Pride and Prejudice I knew the original, I knew the outline of the story, the major events, the climax, and the basic modern changes I wanted to make. Unlike with Pride and Prejudice, I didn’t know my characters other than the ones who would inspire them.
See, I do live with my characters. For the terrible, epic novel that nobody will read (except maybe 1 or 2 people who I trust), I have lived with those characters for most of my life. In high school these characters started to form in my mind and tell me about themselves. In college and during the years I was depressed and trying to pull myself out of it, exploring these characters and learning about them kept me going. I knew I would someday write down all these things I had learned about them. When I finally did start writing the story they rarely surprised me because I had spent so many years talking to them.
Even when I wrote my version of Pride and Prejudice I had spent three years learning about my characters. Who was my Lizbeth, my Darcy, and my Whickham? Three years was long enough for me to simply type out what I already knew about these people. There were surprises, more than I was use to, but I was happy with them because they helped me understand the characters better.
The more I thought about this, the more worried I got. I know the original characters of Persuasion very well. I didn’t want to write a modern version with the original version of these characters. Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot needed to be more than just transplanted to the 21st century. On the ride back to Boston from New York, I sat thinking about who my new characters were. I had one month to figure it out. I had to reconsider the themes of the original story, the modern changes that needed to be made, and why two people in love, in this century, would not end up together?
By mid-June I was no closer to my answers. I had some minor story elements, but for the first time I actually talked to someone else. I allowed my friend Christi’s perspective of the world to influence mine. I have never done this before. My characters, until this one, have solely been my own. They are my friends and I am there confidant. Why Christi? Nobody else in my circle of friends love Persuasion as much as Christi. I can admit she loves the book more than I do. It took her all of 10 minutes to set me straight and to plant the right seed in my head.
I spent two weeks living with my new characters and even now I can’t say I know them. Anne Elliot, now renamed Emma, cries a lot. Fredrick Wentworth is now a writer who copes with the stress of a book tour (and being with Emma) by drinking and getting high. I have actually learned more about them through writing the story than by thinking about them before I got started. They are not acting like the original characters acted. There is a surprise every time I sit down to write. Things I didn’t even expect. For example, I realized Fredrick’s side of the story needs to be told. If my main character is officially unreliable due to depression, grief, willful ignorance, and manipulation then she has missed critical things. Austen, writing in third person, had the benefit of being able to pull in Capt. Wentworth’s thoughts when needed. I did not write this the same way.
I am half way through my modern version of Persuasion as I write this. I am actually taking a break from the writing to consider things that have happened so far and to think about my characters in light of this new information. These are conversations in mind with them. The anchor has been that I know the original story so well. I know what has to happen. Come November I won’t have this anchor anymore. I have written everything I have ever wanted to write in the terrible epic novel. I wanted to modernize my two favorite Austen novels and I have done that when July is over.
Next November, when I do NaNoWriMo again, is going to be interesting for me as a writer. I won’t have characters I know better than I know myself. I won’t have spent years with an original source to help anchor me. I will be on my own. I don’t have any idea at this point as to what I will write about. Yes, it scares me a bit, but it also excites me. While my characters drive my writing, I don’t think I share enough of them with a potential reader. I think not knowing my characters so well will make me need to write down more about them so I can learn about them with my readers.