Loving Your Characters Like God

My first novel took eight years to write and weighed about 5¼ pounds (including the box). Stylistically and structurally, though, it weighed a lot more than that–dense as granite, it could no more fly than the Washington Monument. Or even walk. But the characters were great!

No, they really were. I thought about them all the time–shopped, ate, walked, drove, dropped by the C-store for a gallon of milk, and slept with them; followed them out of the confines of my plot, watched their every move. That turned out to be part of the problem, because when it came to writing the story, I wrote down their every move. There was little left for the reader to imagine, and little room for the characters to move–they were mine, all mine (fiendish cackle).

And they stayed mine, because nobody else was especially interested. One editor at Doubleday–the old Doubleday–told me the problem was narrative drive. Kind of a relief to know that the characters weren’t the problem . . . but in a way, they were.

Let me backtrack a little, before examining why. The most formative book of my youth was The Once and Future King, a re-telling of the Arthur legend. I read the first part, The Sword In the Stone, when I was about eleven. At the age of thirteen, I finished the entire glorious 1000+ pages. From my perspective now, it’s a ponderous volume–too much description, too many pages of intense psychoanalysis, interludes of heavy moralizing, especially at the end. Sort of like my first novel, actually. But what struck me then, as it does now, was the intense, burning love the author had for his characters. Even secondary and tertiary characters. Even villains.

The chief villain of Camelot is Mordred, who brings down that “one brief shining moment” out of bitterness, envy, and sheer badness. He’s an essential element of the story, and as such, irredeemable. But the author loves him enough to demand that we understand him. Mordred is still a destructive person, but we can . . . not appreciate him exactly, but (excuse the bulky phrase) apprehend his personhood. (For another interesting treatment of this classic villain, check out Vivian VandeVelde’s YA novel, Mordred.)

Some time ago it occurred to me that authors should love their characters the way God loves the world. That doesn’t mean they like all their characters, or approve or commend them. But it does mean they should not despise them. I’ve read manuscripts by aspiring authors in which the villain and/or many of the secondary characters were obvious stand-ins for types the author doesn’t like: overbearing patriarchs, Christian fundamentalists, knee-jerk liberals, busybodies. There was no sense of a person beneath the “ism”–maybe we could call them “personisms.” The author doesn’t know these characters, and evidently doesn’t want to.

God loves by creating and knowing, not by approving or condoning. He takes our existence seriously. He does not despise, dismiss, or disregard anyone. How could He despise His own image, warped though it may be?

Obviously we’re not God, but we can pay even secondary characters the compliment of taking their existence seriously. We don’t have to approve of them, but we can understand their story and not dismiss it as trifling.

And we can grant them their freedom. This also godlike in a way. I won’t say He grants us free will, because it’s not that simple. We can’t be totally free of Him, just as a fictional character can never be free of the will, motives, experience, and personality of the author. But God does grant us the integrity to work out the compelling forces in our lives. In my first novel I didn’t do that; I kept them too close; they were too much me. And maybe that’s inevitable in a first novel. But subsequently it’s been easier to get to know Richard Mallory, Starling Shaw, Kit Glover, Hazel Anderson, Veronica Sparks, and others who haven’t yet seen print–and then let them go. Are all my characters are living out their destinies in a parallel universe? If not, at least I tried.

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2 Responses to “Loving Your Characters Like God”

  1. lishacauthen Says:

    Uh oh. Think I have some revising to do. On a certain villain.

    Great post, Janey. You always make me think. When I hear you speak in person, and now, when I read your blog.

  2. Jaime Says:

    Great post! like said above all your writing pieces make me think….i luv that!

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