Adventures in Character Development

  • Posted by Jonah Gibson
  • March 3, 2017 10:21 AM PST
As a writer, you've no doubt heard that characters can sometimes take over your narrative. I'm here to attest that is true. This happened to me.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

It was a fair question. Necessary even, under the circumstances, as she had appeared unbidden and unannounced and dressed in such a way as seemed calculated to land me in hot water. I'm not talking about a short skirt or low-cut blouse either. She was full-on exotic dancer provocative in thigh-high leather boots and a thong—too much make-up, too little fabric, and jewelry in places that would have been uncomfortable had she made even the slightest attempt at modesty by covering them up.

“Paul asked me to stop by,” she said, as if that explained everything.

Now, Paul is a man of the cloth—a born-again evangelical preacher of the fire and brimstone variety. Paul has a take-no-prisoners approach to the interpretation of Holy Scripture, and his sermons often leave the blue haired ladies who sit in the front pews nodding their heads in judgment while the rest of the congregation squirm in their seats as their spiritual failings are recounted from the pulpit. Paul is not the kind of man who would casually ask a stripper to “stop by,” let alone to stop by wearing one of the costumes of her profession.

Paul has his secrets to be sure—as do we all—dark thoughts and unseemly proclivities and occasional passions that would chill the bones of his associates if ever they were exposed. I know all of Paul's secrets, or at least I thought I did, because I created them. I gave them to him along with his sculpted hair, graying just so at the temples, his twelve hundred dollar suits, his bottled tan, and his honey timbered baritone voice.

I gave Paul everything he has and made him everything he is and settled him down to stir the currents and confound the aspirations of the other characters in my next book. Paul is a character in a work of fiction, my work of fiction. He is not supposed to be making life choices I don't know about. He is not supposed to be changing up the mix and adding new actors into my narrative. He's not. He knows this . . . or he should.

“What's your name?” I ask.


“Don't you think you're a little . . . I don't know . . . tawdry for a visit to a parsonage?”

“We're not in a parsonage, silly. We're in your office—the same office where you wrote your last book. What was it called? Speedster? You know, the one that was full of strippers and kinky sex and ridiculous cars and enough dead bodies to fill a good sized morgue. I really don't think I'm too tawdry for the room that spawned that hot mess, do you?”

“I suppose not, Elise, but this is a different book. I like to think I've got range as a writer. I want to demonstrate that range by writing books that are different from the ones I've already written. I don't want to feature exotic dancers in every book I write just because I did it once.”

She screwed up her face and pursed her lips while she thought this over. It was a good look for her. Hell, everything was a good look for her.

“Um," she says, finally, "who's the most successful author you know?”

“Well, I don't actually know her, but that would probably be J.K. Rowling.”

“And you think she showed a lot of range, as you call it?”

“Well yeah, I do.”

“Jonah. Honey, she wrote the same book seven times. Same characters. Same plot. Same audience. Same themes. Voldemort concocts some scheme to get rid of Harry Potter. Potter goes out of his way to avoid confrontation so he can wallow in adolescent angst and increasingly hormonal pursuits. Dumbledore steps in to teach Potter a lesson about destiny and perseverance. In the end, Potter triumphs over evil, usually by accident. Somewhere in the middle there's a quidditch match.”

“So you don't think she's a good writer?”

“She's brilliant. What I'm saying is you don't have to run a different race every time you break out of the gate. You can be a good writer, and successful too, writing the same stuff over and over and over. Once you've found your audience, they're not going to get tired of your schtick. That's what made Harry Potter popular. That's why there are about a million girls my age writing vampire romance and a million women of a certain age writing dirty stories about forbidden love. People want the same thing over and over, and all you've got to do is change the names to keep them engaged.”

“I'm not buying it. You can't reduce literature to some repeatable formula. It's all about bending rules and pushing boundaries.”

“So now you're trying to tell me that Speedster was literature? Please!”

“No. No. Of course not. I wanted to write something commercial. I felt like I needed to make some money so I could afford the luxury of writing something good.”

“And how did that work out for you?”

It was a revelation to learn at this point just how well a naked girl can do smug. Her smile was textbook. She was right of course. Speedster is not breaking any sales records since I published it—not exactly keeping my muse in champagne and silks.

“Not as well as I would have liked,” I admitted.

“So you need to write at least one more commercial book, don't you? And if that one doesn't succeed, you'll need to write another, and another, and so on until you can finally afford to be an artist. Tell me I'm wrong.”

“You know I can't do that, else you wouldn't even be here.”

“But I'm not here for you. I'm here for Paul.”

“That again? I may have allowed Paul a certain amount of freedom within the book, but he can't dictate new characters and sub-plots to me. It's just not done.”

“You'll have to take that up with Paul.”

“Paul? I'm the author here. You may be able to show up in my office, but you don't get into the book unless I write you in. It's as simple as that.”

Elise was trying to look thoughtful or distracted as I said this. I couldn't tell which. She probably would have adjusted an article of clothing if she'd been wearing any. As it was, she just stared at her fingernails like she was trying to decide if she needed a manicure.

“I think you know it's actually quite a bit more complicated than that,” she said at last. “If you don't write me in, Paul's not going to show up. I'm a condition of his continued participation.”

“What is this, some kind of work action?” I asked. “A character in my book, a character who is wholly my invention, is going to strike if I don't accede to his demand? And his demand is that I provide him with a stripper? Really, this is too much.”

“Yeah, well, at the risk of sounding flippant, you made him the way he is so it's really on you, isn't it?”

And so it is.

“It seems you and Paul have me over a barrel,” I said.

“I know,” she said, batting her eyelids to emphasize the irony. “So you're going to write me in?”

“Sure, but we both understand you're a product of my imagination, right?”

She hesitated. Something like worry creased her forehead.

“Um, yeah?”

“Then I'm afraid I'm going to have to give you breast implants.”




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