Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lynn Flewelling on Loving your Characters

Thanks for giving me this blog space, Trisha!

Well, first of all, let's get the shameless shill out of the way. May 23-May 30, 2010, I'm going to be teaching a three-day writing workshop aboard Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas—the world's largest luxury liner—in the Caribbean. As you can see from the dates, there will be plenty of 'free days' to just kick back and soak up the sun and the luxury of ship-board life, and visit four exotic ports of call, including St. Thomas and St. Maarten. Or work on your writing. Or both! The cost of the cruise includes the three-day workshop, evening writers' salons for sharing your work, dinners and cocktail parties with me, fabulous food and drink (except alcohol and soda), and all sorts of wonderful shipboard entertainments. The first fifty people who send in a deposit are also entered into a raffle to win an advanced reading copy (ARC) of my new Nightrunner book, THE WHITE ROAD. I toured a similar ship a few weeks ago and believe me, "luxury" is operative word in luxury liner. The chambermaids even make your towels into animals every day. How cool is that?

As for the workshop, we'll be doing intensive work on various elements of novel/story building, including characterization, dialogue, and plotting, as well as insider information on how to market your work, including how to write a winning query letter. With the dinners and salons, there'll be plenty of time to talk shop, too. These will be interactive work shops, with lots of Q&A and writing prompt assignments. While much of the focus will be on genre writing, these building blocks of good writing apply to all forms. Whether you're someone who's just trying to get started putting pen to paper or fingers to keys, or someone with a book in progress, there will be lots of valuable information and experience. I'll also be talking a bit about my own work and journey as a writer, and maybe even giving a sneak peek of WHITE ROAD.

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There, that's out of the way. What I'd like to blog about today is "Staying in Love With Your Characters." This is something I know more than a little bit about. For those of you unfamiliar with my work, my best known work is my ongoing Nightrunner series, which features medieval rogues Seregil and Alec, who lead double lives as "young nobles of little account" in the grand city of Rhíminee, and as master spies for a shadowy organization called the Watchers, work that takes them into some very dangerous and exotic situations. The books are fantasy/mystery crossovers, with plenty of magic and spooky stuff, and some sex and humor, too.

The first Nightrunner book, LUCK IN THE SHADOWS, was published by Bantam Spectra in 1996, but Alec and Seregil emerged from the Great Cosmic Compost Heap of my imagination in 1983 or 84. In the intervening years I basically taught myself to write, wrote many, many, many drafts, learned how to market a book and tried to sell an unsellable manuscript, went back to the drawing board, and finally came up with two marketable books, LUCK and the sequel, STALKING DARKNESS, got an agent, and made my first sale in 1995. (Come take my workshop; I'll make sure it doesn't take you that long!)

Of the six novels I've written since then, three of them have been Nightrunner books, the most recent being SHADOWS RETURN (Bantam Spectra, 2008)—which I wrote after taking a nine-year hiatus to write my Tamír Triad—and the forthcoming WHITE ROAD (Bantam Spectra, May 2010). Even with a break in the middle, that's a very long time to live with the same characters, to keep them fresh and vital and love them. How do you stay in love with your characters? My answer: change. Whether you're writing a stand alone book, or a multi book series, the characters have to be different on page 427 than they were on page 1.

Otherwise they become static cartoon characters, always described in the same words, always reacting in the same way, and encountering the same situations. For example, Alec is sixteen when we first meet him, and twenty one in WHITE ROAD; in LUCK he's the innocent, callow youth at the beginning of his hero's journey, and becomes the experienced, worldly Seregil's spy-in-training, as well as his companion and gradually, step by step, friend, lover and equal over the course of the next four books. Seregil, for his part, is haunted by an unhappy and guilty past. While this has molded him and colors his actions, interacting with Alec constitutes a major change for him, with long range effects. Change.

So, you have two main characters acting upon and changing each other. Good. But they also move in and are acted upon by the larger world, for good and ill. They suffer. They grow. They learn. They carry scars on skin and soul. It's not like you can just hit the "reset" button at the beginning of every book: "OK, Alec has blond hair, dark blue eyes, he's 16 (even though the last book took a year of story time), he has a fear of heights, and he's recently orphaned." And? What happened to him in Book 2, Book 3, Book 4? Time, victories, defeats, new friends, lost friends, traumas, first love, keeping love going, and on and on. In the hands of a good writer, all of these things leave their mark.

This presents some challenges. Coming up with new situations? Yes. Deciding how they will react to new situations? Yes. But you have to keep track of all those changes and scars, too! "On which ear did the dragonling bite Alec ?" "How old was Seregil when he met so-and-so?" "Why is Alec still carrying a dagger he lost two books ago!?" I'd like to tell you that I keep neat and copious notes but a couple of computer crashes have wiped out important files and now I have to use the previously published books as my references. Memory is a faulty thing to rely on, at least for me. I must admit, I made a real goof in SHADOWS RETURN; I mentioned the death of Alec's father and mentally defaulted to how he died in an earlier draft, not in the final, in-print book. And it got by my editor and copy editor, too. But not my faithful readers! Yeah, I got letters. At the moment I'm writing a sixth Nightrunner book, and believe me, I'm taking more notes.
So change is necessary, and really, change is fun! If you've ever raised a pet, a child, a houseplant, or a garden, you know the joy of watching those small, steady changes. As a writer, you get to orchestrate them. But it takes care. Some writers have a very long range vision, they can plan out a whole series of books and everything that happens in them. I am not one of them. I have a general idea of each book, the arc I want it to cover and the changes I want to happen, but much of it happens at the keyboard. For me, the changes must be a continuous, logical flow: if A + B = C, then D. It's like playing music by ear, and the guiding precept is: "Does this change make sense?" I've learned through hard and ongoing experience that if I try to force events or characters in an illogical direction for the sake of some plot point, I invariably end up stuck solid, unable to proceed until I figure it out and stop trying to push the story in that direction. My characters keep me honest.

Characters that grow and change makes for more interesting reading, but also more interesting writing. Keep that love flowing!


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