by Matt Sinclair
My wife is a saint. I suppose she'd have to be to put up with me—what with a writer's piles of papers and books, the frequent empty stares when my mind is off in some fictional setting with people who exist only in my imagination, and of course the hours spent pulling those people into the world of sentences, paragraphs, chapters....
That said, when I met the woman who became my wife, her saintliness was the furthest thing from my thoughts. Light years away.
Ideally, we learn who people are in the manner and time that makes the most sense. When we learn about them too soon, alarms tend to go off and books are closed never to be reopened.
In short: pace yourself.
I was reminded of this recently while working on a manuscript I thought was nearly finished. I'd been through the manuscript a couple dozen times, but at the suggestion of my critique partners I saw one of my characters in a new light. What I thought was a seemingly innocuous business trip by the wife of my main character became a launch pad for a whole new story line: a potential affair. The more I thought about the possibility, the more I recognized that this undercurrent had been in the manuscript all along, only I hadn't been watching for it. My shoelaces were untied. Seems I'm always the last to know!
So with a song in my heart, I considered having an affair with this woman, so to speak. Within a half hour, more than 1700 words were down. And it was a complete mess. Chalk up one more example to Anne Lamott's crappy first drafts. The conversation between my characters moved way too quickly. These were married people, after all. Married people are slow. Or maybe it's just me.
What mattered most is that it didn't ring true, and I knew it immediately because I know this woman. No, she's not based on anyone I know. But that doesn't matter. She is the woman I've been writing all these many months.
I know how she wears her hair, and I know what she thinks about during her commute to work. I know what she thinks of her family and her job. In my mind, I see her every day. I'm still in the midst of revisions, but I think I know how the potential affair will end. I've written dozens of scenes between her and her husband, many of which lie dormant in old computer files—waiting, perhaps, for a short story and a name change to protect the not always saintly.
Like my personal relationships, those I maintain with my characters are vitally important to me. These people aren't my best friends. I don't even like them all the time. But as an author, that doesn't bother me; they're human, and people stink sometimes. Some characters are prone to make selfish decisions, while others choose to forgo their personal pleasure for a greater good. Ultimately, I find that discovering who these people are both on and off the page is among the most rewarding aspects of writing fiction.
The key, it seems to me, is letting the characters come to a decision by themselves—in their own time and in their own way. That takes time. But it is time well spent.
What do you think? How long does it take to get to know your characters? How many scenes litter your 'cutting room' floor?