Friday, January 20, 2012

When you can't finish a book because the characters have taken over

The book is acquiring new characters and scenes at a furious rate. You're a bit surprised but very pleased that you can keep track of them all.
The outline vanished in a cloud of "more stuff that has to happen first" ages ago.
In fact, you quietly fear you might never get to the first major incident in the outline. But you know that if you ever do it will be the best scene ever.
You are secretly worried because there are so many things later on in your outline that your characters, as you now understand them, would never do.
You cannot talk about your book at lengths of less than an hour, and you are beginning to like your characters better than your real friends, mainly because your characters do not roll their eyes at each other and desperately try to flee when they see you coming.
If you have a contract, you're desperately late on it. If you have an agent but no contract, your agent keeps asking when s/he can show some things around, and you keep sending more stuff but asking him/her not to show it yet.
Your agent or editor has insisted that you bundle up everything you have and hand it over to the book doctor, before you are found either starved to death or crushed under a pile of manuscript pages. (This is how I've gotten all five clients like this).
If you belong to a critique group, two or three members are obsessed in a positive way with your ongoing work and seem to be hanging on the edge of their seats for more of it. The rest of them quit three months ago, and have formed another group somewhere else.
You really, really love to say "My characters took over my story."
Diagnosis: Your characters are eating your book.
Theoretically a book could grow out of control along any axis that takes time and space to express, and there's no reason why, for example, a plot couldn't become centuries worth of complicated, or descriptions could not run on for many pages about dinner forks or Grand Forks. But realistically, what tends to run out of control is character development. Any fictional character, no matter how thoroughly described, is of course much smaller than any real life person, no matter how dull, but this does not stop a certain kind of writer from trying to invent it all and tell it all. Since characterization is a skill that borders on or supports art (the way that fingering a clarinet is a skill but music is an art), some people who become very good at it then get lost in it.
This happens more often than we realize, because writers who never get a contract (and perhaps never even submit) sometimes write quite literally millions of words about a world of their imagining—mostly about the people of their imagining. In the old days when typewriters walked the earth, after these writers died, it would often be destroyed by embarrassed relatives, sometimes after being shown to an English professor at a local college, who would look at the huge heap of paper, turn over a few pages, and then say something as noncommittal as possible.
Nowadays people fill up their hard drives, and when the computer is sold off or given away as part of the estate, bzzp. Thirty years and four million words about the epic love affair between Prince Turpentine, Lady Spatula, and how it shook the House of Miniscule-Testicles until ancient Oregano itself fell. (those words are pronounced terpen-TEEN, spa-TYOO-lah, mee-NEE-skew-lay-TEST-a-kleez, and Orra-GAH-noh, respectively). Out on the curb in a garbage bag, preserved in a box in a favorite niece's closet, dispatched to bit heaven, or resting in peace on disks that no current machine can read.
And here's the sad bit: it doesn't have to be that way. Works with characters that overgrow like that generally have something fabulously wonderful at the core; they're more or less like fruit trees that put out too much foliage and want to sprawl into bushes, i.e. all you need do is administer some pruning and some training (which, in fruit trees, means tying them to posts to shape how they grow; I will admit that while I have trained a couple of apple trees to hold their limbs up, and a peach tree to stand straight, I have never gotten any of them to fetch or sit.)
That phrase "My characters took over" is the giveaway. Creating and elaborating interesting characters is a trick, albeit one that even gifted professionals have to practice lifelong. Not everyone can do it, though it may be as common a latent ability as singing, cooking, drawing, or shooting baskets—fewer people try, so it's hard to say how common the ability actually is. In any case, there are large numbers of writers who can make up a dozen people before breakfast and have them all badly over detailed before a midmorning snack.
Abundant character invention is not an ability to disparage; it's about as useful to a fiction writer as perfect pitch is to a violinist, flawless isolations are to a dancer, or perfect situational awareness is to a shortstop. But there are violinists who become so hung up on tone that they play notes but not music, dancers who are so busy showing you their isolations that you miss the dance, and shortstops who see the potential for a triple play and confuse hell out of every other player when all that's needed is to just throw the lead runner out.
Abundant character invention is a gift that needs to be harnessed and trained to do a writer any good, and as a book doctor, now and then, I've been called in to harness it. The process should be much more like taking a dog to a good modern obedience school than like old-fashioned brutal horse breaking, and it can do damage if done wrong, but it's absolutely necessary for people with a big talent.
I should add that it usually seems to make the writer much happier once it is harnessed. Too-abundant too-assertive characters who run away with every story cause frustrated writers in the long run, though I'll freely admit I wouldn't know. I don't have that gift very often, and controlling it is the least of my worries in my own work. (I tend to need to go the other way; strangely enough the same tools that will restrain you, oh hypercreative person, will very often boost me, the hypocreative.)
Warning: possible false diagnosis
As always, defend your work and try to achieve your purposes. If you're unhappy that you never finish and you've got one unfinished novel, more than a decade in progress, that is much longer than some completed tetralogies, if you feel like you love writing but you never get anything written, if the thought of finishing makes you feel like you're betraying your best friends, then this is the prescription for you. If you agree with your editor, critiquers, or agent that this sonofabitch is out of control and eating your life and career, apply the prescription below liberally.
But if you're acting in response to editorial or agently critiques, do be aware that in our movie-influenced world, there are some editors and agents out there who are brain-locked on super-simplified stories that have just one round character and a supporting cast of cardboard, centered on one and only one plot problem—essentially people who have absorbed too much Syd Field without Field's leavening of humanity, nuance, and sensitivity.
Sadly, some critique groups that pride themselves on being a roomful of wannabe-hacks may also urge you to give people more action and less entertainment, cloaking it in talk of pleasing the market and being professional.*
The tricks I discuss in the prescription can be used to turn a rich, complex, rewarding novel that someone might read across a week of winter nights into one of those light, thin, and fastnovelettes that are left on airliner seats at the end of the flight; if you are getting a vibe that's what they're asking for, fuck being professional about it. Fight for your novel's breathing room; don't let anyone intimidate you into killing it on the operating table.  That work is what will remain of you long after you are gone; it is worth a tantrum to save it.
Prescription: Take control of the flat-to-round dial and use it for your purposes.
The distinction between flat and round characters is usually attributed to E.M. Forster. The crude version of the distinction is from the reader's viewpoint:
Flat characters , to the reader, are essentially human scenery, like the people they pay to walk around and be the crowd in movies—messengers, waiters, old codgers who say kindly wise stuff and are not heard from again, beat cops who secure crime scenes, virgins who finally put out just in time to be eaten by the monster, etc.
Round characters, to the reader, are those who must feel real for the book to work—protagonists of plot and major subplots, characters of influence, some contributors to atmosphere, important people in any conflicted back story.
Readers often notice that some characters go from flat to round; "the bicycle messenger" in one scene, by the end of the book, becomes Rod Upreit, who is the sole support of his twin kid sisters, and dreams of quitting his second job as a skyscraper window-washer to race mountain bikes professionally, as he confided to the heroine during the time they were trapped in the elevator before he figured out how to extricate them, and can therefore be depended upon to deliver that message or die trying (and rescue her himself when her cowardly boyfriend wimps out).**
Almost any reader knows that whenever the book needs a round character, and you deliver a flat one, scenes with that character will be clichéd, lifeless, and perhaps unbelievable.
For some reason, it is less apparent to readers and critics that when the book needs a flat character and you write a round one, the focus in scenes with that character will go to pieces and the scenes will be much too slow and run far over length.
Excessive roundness will begin to multiply because undesirable roundness creates space for more undesirable roundness: when the waiter gets a back story, the café owner who hired her does too. Now they both interact with the cook, who needs a back story to fit in, and meanwhile, while they are all dropping bits of their back stories artfully into their expository conversation about the two big guys at Table 14, Louie and Rocco, who were supposed to be having breakfast before going to toss the heroine out a twentieth-floor window, are waiting on their pork chops, fried eggs, and grits, which now require explanation (Rocco was originally Braxton Bragg Stumpwater from Alabama, but when he met Louie "the Socket Wrench" Staccato in the army, he realized he'd always wanted to be a mobster like in the movies, so they became partners but Louie never liked his mother's cooking and has acquired Rocco's tastes, and they are saving up for one more big score so they can get married in Hawaii … that covered the time while they were waiting for breakfast, now here comes Inga with the Southern Special Breakfast #2 (which the cook cooks in honor of Mama, who taught him to cook), finally, after dealing with the cook's little crying jag (brought on by the way the pork chop smell reminds him of Mama), but of course since Inga is now round and so are Rocco and Louie, it's just so tempting to have them interact a little bit … and WHEN THE HELL IS THE POOR HEROINE GETTING THROWN OUT OF THAT WINDOW? A lady should not have to wait all day***).
From a writer's standpoint, here's a rule to start from (you can mix it up once you get the hang of playing it square, but stay danceable -- know what you're playing and help people follow it):
In most fiction, each character should be as round as is needed for the intended overall effect.
In more literary**** fiction, every character should be one or two increments more round than needed, but only that much. (masterful example: anything by John Irving).
In more action-oriented fiction****, characters should be one increment less rounded than you would expect, and the flatness should be masked with a pretense of roundness.
Now, how do you achieve or control different degrees of roundness?
Roundness is multi-valued and multi-dimensional. This makes sense metaphorically; after all, segments in a one-dimensional line by definition can't be round relative to each other, and single points have no shape. As a writer and editor, I find it useful to think of character roundness as the degree of change in one or more dimensions in the course of the story as told.
Degree of change is a sort of lumpy scale. Obviously a character who is exactly the same the last time we see him/her as s/he was the first time has zero change. But as Rust Hills explains beautifully, there is a kind of four part rising scale of change:
lowest: character shift as plot device (the mean character turns kind so that the main character can get her way)
higher: character shift driven by plot (for example, the character is hopeful at the beginning, and then when things turn out badly, is disappointed)
higher still: character change driven by plot (the character is fundamentally altered so that we sense they'll never be quite the same, by events in the plot)
highest: character change for the character's own purposes (the character sees a need to become someone new or different in order to fulfill a higher value, and chooses to make that change, either failing or succeeding)
Each degree of change could happen along any of the dimensions of character.
What do I mean by dimensions? Scales on which you can compare things having to do with character, just as age, weight, race, hotness, preppiness, odor, elegance, humility, temperature, mass, and credulousness are all scales on which you could compare people.  Swiping slightly from Aristotle, the Elizabethans, Bergson, Hoffer, Rorty, and a lot of people I don't realize I'm swiping from, here are ten dimensions in which a character can change in the course of a story:
Action. A pacifist kills someone (spoiler: High Noon), a person who never lies does for a higher purpose (The Crucible, Les Miserables), a miserable skunk of a person does one kind act on his deathbed (King Lear), a guy who sticks his neck out for nobody acts for a higher purpose (Casablanca, Star Wars), "Hey, I may be a crook but I'm an American crook" (the movie of The Rocketeer).
Motivation. A prostitute falls for a customer, a crooked lawyer stands up for justice, a guy who just wanted to be cool has to become magnificent. Despicable Me. The original The Longest Yard. Maupassant's "Clothes Make the Man." At least half of Lawrence Block's stories about Keller, the anomic hit man with a little bit of a heart.
Image/first impression. The elegant lady in the evening gown smells like old socks and picks her nose. The grunge kid cleans up into a tux. Brilliant example that rounds all the otherwise flat characters at one point or another: Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns, in which every character we're primed to see as a one-dimensional conventionalist foil for Murray suddenly drops the mask and is all too human, forcing us to consider that Murray's approach to life, charming as it appears, may not be the right one. I used this very consciously with Gratz in Tales of the Madman Underground.
Beliefs, specific/particular. One character believes something about another and then changes his or her mind, and the belief is revelatory of possibilities in the character we hadn't seen before. Hannah's apparent closed-mindedness collapses across the course of Angels in America, which reveals her to be a much more round character than she seems in that first conversation with Joe; Deckard thinks his partner is merely a competent cop in Blade Runner until at the end Deckard sees how much compassion and depth has been there all along. At the roundest end of the scale, the most revelatory changes in specific beliefs are ones about the self—Educating Rita, Great Expectations, Gone With the Wind, Lord Jim, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, the first Rocky, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (the novel; it's less apparent in the movie).
Beliefs, universal and philosophic. Religious and political conversions, changes in philosophic outlook, and all that. I'm not a fan of these but many writers use them. King of Hearts, Waiting for Lefty, Eight Million Ways To Die, A Christmas Carol, This Gun For Hire.
Diction. As people get rounder they begin to talk differently. Born Yesterday is the classic example of this, along with My Cousin Vinnie and Norma Rae and Pretty in Pink. Pygmalion/My Fair Lady is pretty much about it. One very clever reviewer noticed, but couldn't figure out why, Karl slung fewer fucks into his sentences toward the end of Tales of the Madman Underground.***** And part of the fun I'm having with the Daybreak books is the collapse of bureaucratic routine/operational language that dominates people's speech (after all most of them are bureaucrats, military officers, and cops) at the beginning of Directive 51, and the gradual re-emergence of individuality of diction as the modern world collapses into the romantic world of the interwar pulps. ******

Role tension, revealed. Role tension is essentially the Wrong Man Plot. Shakespeare loved this one: drop a thoughtful brooder into a revenge tragedy, motivate the monstrous villain with love. So did Rafael Sabatini, whose one plot was the honest man forced into a life of crime, and of course Alfred Hitchcock. Almost every unlikely-detective story rests on role tension—Miss Marple, Father Brown, and all the rest. David Brin did it splendidly in The Postman and Kevin Costner screwed that up by not maintaining it in the movie; played for laughs in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Idiocracy, and overtly mocked (affectionately) in Tangled. Begin with a character who looks like one thing, and let us gradually learn s/he's something else. There's a math nerd joke, usually told as happening in a bar near a high-level college: a bunch of male math nerds are drinking together and one of them is crushing intensely on the beautiful waitress, but grumbling that it could never work because, look at her, anyone that pretty must have the IQ of a young flatworm. While he's in the bathroom, his friends slip the waitress ten bucks to answer "What is the integral of f(x) with respect to x?" [Where f(x) is one of those things that math nerds just tend to know because it comes up a lot, but most of the rest of us would be clueless; I've heard a dozen functions used in various versions of this]. When the returned friend is then goaded into trying the question on the waitress, she gives the answer they told her, but adds "… plus a constant!" Which is actually more correct, simultaneously revealing that she knows integral calculus and that she is the only actual rounded character in the joke.
Role tension, accepted or denied. In Bewitched Bunny, Bugs sees what the wicked witch is plotting, and shouts, "This looks like a job for the Masked Avenger!" Then, in a conversational tone, he adds, "… but since he's not around, I guess I'll have to take care of it myself." He's accepted his role tension: this isn't his kind of job but someone has to do it. Toward the end of the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy (Kristy Swanson) realizes that she just isn't the slayer that Donald Sutherland has been trying to train, because, frankly, she's dim, flighty, incurably shallow, and just wants to be a popular high school girl. But she can't give up slaying vampires—someone has to do it—so instead, she tackles the job using, as she explains, "My infallible fashion sense." Which, indeed, turns out to work. That's role tension denied; since she can't be the slayer they were expecting, she'll be the slayer she can be. Whether role tension is accepted or denied, it rounds a character, and this can be done progressively; the character comes to realize that who s/he is doesn't fit with what s/he has to do, and either just deals, does it in a different and more compatible way, or in rare cases walks away.
Back story. Be very careful with this because it is far too often the site on which excessive rounding begins to grow, leading to characters taking over the story, but in moderation—especially if most of it can be implied—it can provide a little rounding quickly. In countless World War Two adventures on screen and page, one of the intrepid Allied volunteers, asked why he's undertaking some foolhardy mission, says something like, "My brother was on the Arizona/at Bataan/in Nanking." In the film of The Wizard of Oz, the Soldier with the Green Whiskers lets Dorothy into the Emerald City because "I had an Aunt Em myself once." In Susan Glaspell's Trifles, after they find the dead canary and begin to construct what must have led to the murder, one of the women recalls the boy who killed her kitten when she was a little girl. The trick is inverted at the end of Camelot, when Arthur asks the kid who has stowed away to enlist in the final battle whether his father was a knight of the Round Table, or his mother was rescued by one of them, or perhaps their village saved, and it turns out that the boy has been won over entirely by the stories and legends, with no personal experience at all.
Notice that that's the way to do it: brief allusions at the right time. Not-yet-ready-for-the-book-doctor fiction, the sort of thing that actually requires the book mortician, is riddled with people who suddenly reveal that they were raped, abducted by aliens, raised by wolves, the last survivor after the explosion of HMS Convenient, or whatever. It can happen in a moment: Inigo Montoya's last line before killing the six-fingered man, "I want my father back, you son of a bitch," retells his whole back story and makes him a great deal rounder in a few seconds.
Awareness of the situation. Sometimes a background character leaps into roundedness just by showing that while standing around, they've been thinking. In Lawrence of Arabia, the guard who has been standing by while the general hears Lawrence's incredible report suddenly turns to the impassive guard and asks, "Have you been listening to this?" "Yes, sir." "And what did you think?" "I think it's bloody marvelous, sir!" The tears on the lady in waiting as the princess is being led off to her death, the muttered "Watch yourself" from the formerly impassive servant—or conversely the unseen elbow to the kidney thrown by the prison guard—all give us a sense that we know these people.
There could be ten or twenty more dimensions possible, but here's the trick I imposed on the clients, which seems to work:
In most genre fiction, including commercial mainstream:
maximally rounded characters -- who should be the most important -- will exhibit large changes, something like the third or fourth degree, in about two or three dimensions that are not critical for the plot.
Important secondary characters will exhibit change in about one or at most two dimensions not critical for the plot.
Named minor roles should exhibit change only in dimensions that are involved with the plot (but might show one more dimension in which they don't change).
Outright spear carriers should have no dimension that isn't plot critical, and usually remain static in that.
In literary fiction, increase all the settings by one or two; that is, let the number of non-plot dimensions go up to five or so, let many characters go up to the third degree of change and a few more go to the fourth, etc.
In action-adventure stuff, rather than doing actual rounding, fake it or paint it on (the way we paint trompe l'oeil shadows on stage scenery to make things on flat canvas look real). Conan Doyle was a master of this in one way: Sherlock Holmes had a dozen affectations that hinted at a past, any of which could be dragged out at any time, but in fact there was almost no change in them and they tended to belong to a single dimension, affectations. Ian Fleming took a different approach: every few books he'd give Bond a more interesting girlfriend or friendship, sometimes let things linger for a further book or two, and then slaughter the important secondary to motivate Bond to stay his same old icy-killer self. He looked more rounded because those events had been drawn in around him.
You can be quite systematic or mostly random about this, but if you over-invent, it's a way to prune back (and if like me you under-invent, it's a checklist for expansion). Start by making a list of significant characters, and rank them by how much you want them to be the focus of the book; ties are not only permitted but encouraged, especially at lower levels (please don't spend any time deciding whether the choir director who is hurled from a high window in Chapter 4 is a more or less round character than the pizza driver who is blown apart by the bomb under the doormat in Chapter 8). List an appropriate number of non-plot critical dimensions for each, and decide whether the degree of change in that dimension should be zero (a character who talks funny should talk just as funny throughout), one (the highly skilled assassin is a female impersonator, so all the security forces are off the track), etc. on up to four (e.g. the way so many Christopher Fry heroes decide that since they need to be around to take care of some moral duty, they'll have to give up their inclination to suicide).
Then keep only the things that are on the list. Sob, if you must, as you cut large and paste small.  You may have to spend a long time mining them out, but don't worry about that; the few torn and bloody gobbets you have left will be raw, naked, crude, with great gaping holes—and a million miles closer to publishable.
*If you just recognized your critique group in that sentence, get out now. As Mortimer remarked to Edward II, Veta portam infligere in fundamentum tuum.
**If any of you just said to yourselves, "I'd read that," you will have to write it yourself. Get going.
*** While she's waiting, Rod brings his twin kid sisters around to meet the nice lady who paid for their ballet lessons …

**** Yes, the distinction between literary and action-oriented is a matter of fashion, and fashions do change over time. But as Oscar Wilde pointed out, fashion is critical to life because  it is arbitrary and trivial; our response to it is an expression of our most freely chosen self. The current fashion is that works that aspire to a literary reputation will contain less violent action, and works that aim to entertain with violent action will be less self-consciously literary, exceptions and peculiarities like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard stipulated. To participate in any discourse, one should follow fashions enough to know when one is breaking them, and break them in ways that communicate something of value to people who need to hear it. Sadly, this does mean that artistically-minded people who aspire to write high art about down and dirty violence have a tough row to hoe right now. Also, I don't wear my hoop skirt to PTA meetings. If I ever do want to comment on the uptightness of the PTA by cross-dressing, it will be vital to pick something with some elegant, stylish, relevant to the offense I intend to give, and dignified for me even if it is a calculated insult to them.
***** If you're suddenly saying, So why did he? you could get the same answer by asking Louis Armstrong why he played jazz.
****** In the sense of "a tale of adventure in a strange world of danger and exaggerated effects," not in the sense of "love story." This seems to be an unfamiliar sense of the word to a lot of people nowadays, which I guess is why people miss the joke in the subtitle of Tales of the Madman Underground.