There are three sorts of writers. Plotters, who come up with the plot first, then write their characters to follow it. Pantsers, who kind of grip to the edge of their seat and watch what happens. And Artistés, who develop characters that become so real they refuse to do what we want them to.
Storytellers got 21 rewrites and took me 26 months to write, because I haven’t learned yet what sort of a writer I was. I had my plot, a few important characters, and multiple stick figures. When my editor said to me “the only differences between your female characters are whether they’re pregnant or not” I felt, as a noted feminist, that there was a massive challenge in front of me. But when I started giving them personality traits, they stopped doing what I wanted them to.
Guðrún no longer wanted to devote her life to being a figure in the background whose task was listening to others. She turned out to be assertive, fun, selfish, strong, and didn’t suffer fools gladly. Once she started talking and acting, the other characters needed to become alive as well. Including the fools. Mannerisms, clothes, duties, habits, attention to hygiene, attitude towards religion, neuroticism… In the meantime I had a plot, or thought so. Things kept going out of control until I figured everyone out, even characters that only appeared once for approximately 15 seconds. Only then the pile of paragraphs finally started feeling like a book.
This was my first clue that I was going to be an Artisté, but I didn’t know that yet. I just thought I had no idea what I was doing. (That was true.)
Children was supposed to be Magni’s book. Maya originally appeared in a different book, which I shelved. When I started working on Children it turned out that not only would she be in it, she wanted half the book for herself. How I was supposed to do that was not her problem. As I kept coming up with ideas – who she could be, what she could do, say or feel – Maya began to have demands. A strong character can’t be bossed around. Someone passive can’t suddenly become leader with tons of exciting ideas. So… what was the problem? I was taking a shower and suddenly went, out loud, “ooooooo… she’s PISSED OFF!”
Aaaaand the next rewrite followed.
I tried not to let Ludo have a life in Children. I just added him as, uh, padding – an extra outlaw to make up the numbers; a stick figure. The section kept falling apart, until I saw that picture of Joel Kinneman. Suddenly Ludo was a person. I knew his past, the way he moved, talked, thought. The outlaw section completed itself (but not before adding Troll, who was never supposed to be in it). I didn’t feel like I wrote it myself. It felt like the characters did what they felt like doing, while I tried to steer them in a direction they needed to go. I wrestled with them until we arrived at a compromise they begrudgingly accepted.
That section, which is possibly the strongest, was not supposed to be in the book at all.
Herjólf’s character wasn’t working for a long time. He was such a stereotypical villain that it made my teeth itch. He was evil, manipulative… and… that was all. One day, as I was pacing around the living room talking to myself, which, um, I obviously never do because that would be really weird and I am not a weird person at all, I started recording as I dictated his entire life story from the day he was born. Now I could write a person with motivations, backstory, and a life that stretched beyond existing for a few chapters. I didn’t need to use that backstory at all, except a few details here and there, but I needed to find out who he used to be before I understand who – and why – he now was.
Now there’s the second book in the series… and it already isn’t listening to me.
Land, the follow-up to Children, is supposed to take us from the Nine Worlds into the tenth – Earth. My characters are going to discover Iceland in a re-telling of Hrafnaflóki’s expedition. There will be lots of elves. Or there were meant to be lots of elves, since they refused to be called that. They are the Hidden Folk, which is accurate, but a bit of a mouthful. (They have to become “elves” at some point. Maybe they allow that at the end.)
A character named Thorolf was supposed to be sweet, loving, and supportive. He turned out to be assertive, angry, and restless. Instead of Michael B. Jordan I had to cast Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. I had some very nice dialogue ready for Thorolf. He was not interested. The scenes that were ready in my head had to change, because this person would never utter those words, so others couldn’t react to those words. Admittedly, he became much more interesting and three-dimensional. But he also ruined the arc I had for him.
Right now I am writing a scene where Thorolf is supposed to be furious with another character. It’s the main pivotal point, changing the entire relationship. Instead, Thorolf is sympathetic, if a bit frustrated. They hold hands. Fury!!! Hatred!!! CONFLICT!!! Not going to happen. Instead he demanded a chapter or two from his point of view, which is going to be confusing for the readers and force me to develop a third voice, but that’s not his problem. Thanks for NOTHING, Thorolf.
Thorolf is a new character, so perhaps it feels justified-ish that he’s making my life more difficult. But the characters I know aren’t helping either. I now know what they would say and do, and worse – what they wouldn’t. Plot be damned. The first draft – yes, I am still on the first draft and nobody, including me, is going to read that – plods on like a turtle on ambien, because when I get to a point where I never expected to be I have to figure out how everyone involved would act/react. I know what I would like them to do, but being an Artisté means that I am obliged to make my life difficult. It’s in the job description.
One of my writer friends insists that people who say their characters talk to them are full of shit. I’d give a lot to have my characters talk to me. Mine just sulk or huff. Thorolf already wants a book of his own, gave me its title, vague information that he’s going to be a Viking leader, the book will be based on Icelandic sagas, and he’ll have four sons with three wives. That’s all. (Why four? Why three? I was not informed.) The rest is my problem, until I write something he doesn’t like, then he’ll sulk and berate me. And I haven’t even completed the first draft of book two.
Sometimes things feel too frustrating for words. In Children, Maya has been claustrophobic from the first draft. It took 28 drafts before I suddenly understood there was a reason for it other than Maya keeping a window open. Aaaand rewrite 29 followed, with an added scene that became one of the strongest and most important parts of the entire series. I just wish she would have hurried up a bit with revealing that. All I got out of her before was a vague feeling that this was somehow important.
I have no idea where Land is heading right now. I know very well where it was supposed to go, because I outlined and plotted it in detail before I started writing. Har, har. Helped an awful lot. Especially when a Certain Character turned out to be 1200 years old, rather than 30. Certain Character is getting stabbed in the last chapter.