What Characters Really Want: A Listener Who’s Willing to Type by Maddie Dawson
One of the most fun things about writing a novel (or as my uncle put it, “telling lies for profit”) is meeting all the characters who show up.
People are always asking authors where their characters come from — it’s the #1 question when you go for readings and signings — and they always seem frightened if you tell them the truth, which is, “I have utterly no idea. One day some people just show up in my head and start talking, until finally I go get a pen and start writing things down. Then they tell me the story over the course of about a year, mostly when I’m trying to sleep or read somebody else’s book or drive on a rain-soaked highway, and then they leave and I never hear from them again.”
Obviously the next thing people want to ask is: so how’s it working out with the meds?
After that, I never want to tell them the really bad part, which is how frustrating it can be when you have a character show up who seems to want you to write the story, but doesn’t want to give you all the information you need. Sometimes it takes a character months to tell you the Really Important Thing, the thing that you need to know to get to the end of the book, and which, if you had known it from the beginning, maybe you wouldn’t have wanted to take this book on in the first place. Maybe you would have said, “No thank you, Character Who Showed Up. Thank you for your time, but I think I’ll pass.” Then you could have waited for another character to show up and start telling you a different story.
But–ha ha–THAT would never work, of course. My friend Alice says you get the characters you get. They choose you, and then, as if you’re simply some servant of theirs, they insist that you do all their typing, whenever they think of something to say. And of course you have to buy the paper and the ink cartridges, and then be available to write and rewrite and pay attention to them even if it means you have to sometimes wake up in the middle of the night or pull off the highway to scribble down some bit of dialogue. They don’t care.
Ultimately, you realize you’re glad to do this for them because you’ve fallen in love with them. Even though they are flawed and secretive and may behave a little like your Uncle Floyd when he’s had too much to drink, you can’t wait to hear what they’re going to do next. They get themselves into all kinds of trouble—bank robberies, unwanted pregnancies, breakups, negligent homicides—and then it’s your job to help steer them to the end of the book, where you will either insist they be redeemed or send them off to a tragic fate. (I hate having to do that to them, but sometimes there is just no other way.)
I was sound asleep when Rosie, the protagonist in my last book, The Opposite of Maybe, turned up in the middle of the night. Honestly, I wasn’t even looking for a character; I had bid farewell to my previous characters and was looking to learn French cooking and maybe take up serious recreational staring into space. But there she was, 44 years old and disastrously pregnant, she said, and all this just as she was breaking up with her lover (a man she’d lived with for fifteen years but had somehow forgotten to marry).
I ignored her for days, but of course she had picked me and wouldn’t let up. And over the course of the next few months, she brought in a bunch of other characters: her 88-year old grandmother who was starting to be a tiny bit demented perhaps, and her grandmother’s married lover, and oh yes, then there was the caregiver, a sentimental guy named Tony, who let everybody drink martinis and cheat at Scrabble because life’s too short to do anything else.
We were well into the second draft before Rosie let me in on the news that this wasn’t just a fun, romantic story about a woman and a self-absorbed man and a possible baby and another man; it was a desperate tale about what you do next when you no longer recognize the life you’ve been living or the story you’ve been telling yourself.
It was a story we all recognize at one time or the other: starting over with the shreds of life we’ve been given and trying to make something of meaning.
Of course it took Rosie and me about a year to get to all that, and I might have been a bit scary during that time, walking around with a faraway look in my eye, mumbling to myself and scribbling words on napkins and receipts as she talked; or leaping out of bed in the night to shiver in my bathrobe at the computer while I furiously typed. There were even some times when people—the kind that claim to be REAL, of the flesh and blood variety—said to me, “You don’t seem to be listening.”
And I had to explain, “Oh, yes, I’m listening. But the voice that’s talking to me is one I’m afraid you can’t hear.”
Rosie doesn’t talk to me anymore. It’s a shame, because we were such good friends. People ask me if maybe there will be another book about her, but I don’t think so. A few months ago, somebody else showed up with a story she needed to have typed. So I’m afraid I can’t take Rosie’s calls for a while anyway. But that’s okay. She’s busy with her second chance, and I’m happy for her.
Maddie Dawson is the author of two novels about love and all its disasters and complications (The Opposite of Maybe and The Stuff That Never Happened, both published by Crown). She loves writing books with crazy families, love, secrets, and reasonably happy endings. Like life. She’s written for many magazines and teaches writing workshops in her home in Connecticut. Visit her website at www.maddiedawson.com.
Learn more and order your copy of The Opposite of Maybe here.
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