Jessie, the main character in my current novel, Beyond the Gate, “tapped me on the shoulder” while I was scrubbing the floor of a house infested by roaches. She looked like a girl from my high school days. She loved cleaning. That’s all I knew about her at that moment, when she tapped. As I cleaned day by day, she was with me, revealing more of her story, herself. That was seven years ago, and I know her pretty well now, but she can still surprise me.
Six Characters in Search of An Author, a 1921 play-within-a-play by Luigi Pirandello,* plumbs the depths of the relationships between authors and their characters. I find the creative/inventive process of bringing people to life fascinating. I teeter on the tightrope of defining the characters while allowing them to define themselves. Tricky.
As the author I am clearly in charge–to some extent. A second force is input from a few folks I’ve asked to read my manuscript. And the third force is that mysterious influence of the characters themselves, how they signal me that they wouldn’t do such-n-such a thing or nudge me to look more intently into who they are, down deep.
Jessie, Roderick, Jakob, Kelly, Doug, Fiona are the five major characters in Beyond the Gate. In this post, I will focus mostly on Jakob. My quick sketch of him for queries and plot summaries is, “Intelligent and independent, Jakob is also autistic. Spiritual and religious, he is focused on climate change and caught in a crisis of faith over the dying of the planet.” Okay, I’ve been working hard with Jakob because he irritates one of my readers to the point that she doesn’t resonate with him and does not find him a sympathetic character. That was bad news because Jakob is supposed to be likable. Difficult to relate to, yes, but likable, especially for Jessie.
Another reader helped me consider that critique (though he didn’t react to Jakob the same way). We came up with the thought that Jakob falls for Jessie more because she meets his needs than because he sees her beauty. Because of the critique, I also realized–had to admit–that Jakob wasn’t changing and growing much. These insights are both important and exciting. Challenging, too, because it’s daunting to think about the work that still needs to be done.
Nonetheless, I am actually enjoying adding dialogue and actions–what Jakob says and what he does–as well as modifying others’ reactions to him. In these revisions, I hope readers will appreciate the depth of his struggles and triumphs and the strength of his character. I hope irritation over his ways will be well-tempered by respect, if not admiration, maybe even fondness.
Roderick, the man whose house Jessie cleans, and Doug, her ex-, are also under revision, based on reader feedback. I am striving to integrate Roderick’s essential decency with behaviors brought on by his demons, and not have such Jekyll and Hyde mood swings. I’ve known that Doug was way too vanilla, too flat, and creating a scene where he unleashes inner fury and grief has made him, I believe, more authentic and believable. It’s good getting to know these folks better!
A closing thought on characterization — I finished reading a novel the night before last and then last night, opened the cover of a new one and started reading the inside flap but had to stop. I wasn’t ready to bring Eva into my life. First, I had to spend a few minutes with Ruth and Bo from the other book, thinking about what happened to them and saying good-bye.
*I saw it long years ago but can’t remember much. After researching it for this post, I want to experience it again, along with some of the variations and spoofs that have spun off, from Del Shores’ contemporary play Six Characters in Search of a Play to the decently reviewed Stranger than Fiction starring Will Ferrell to Stephen King’s book series Dark Towers. Any of you familiar with any of these? Any other comments on characters you have known and loved or hated?