Living characters

There seem to be a lot of things in life that you understand in concept but don’t really know until you’ve experienced them first-hand. Motherhood would be one of these. Survival instinct.

Not nearly so dramatic but probably just as unknowable without personal experience is how alive characters are as they’re being written. It’s one of the things that’s most fascinated me about writing: how characters seem to act and think for themselves, and trying to force them into an action or to say certain lines sometimes just feels so wrong. Eventually you just have to let go of whatever idea you’d had and go instead with what seems to want to come next.

This seems to happen a lot when writing an exchange of dialogue between two characters. I’ll know what I want the dialogue to accomplish, and perhaps the opening lines, but don’t know exactly what will be said beyond that. Each line of dialogue almost seems to write itself, it so often feels like the natural next comment from that particular character. As the exchange lengthens, quite often I find the conversation going in a direction I hadn’t intended when I started. Now and then I have to deliberately step in as the author and reroute my characters before they lose sight of the destination I had in mind for them.

This is just such an exchange, which I wrote a few days ago. I knew the first four or five lines, but the rest of it the characters said themselves, and the guy really surprised me with his sweet comment at the end, which I hadn’t expected of him. (Neither had the girl.)

“I didn’t know, but I guessed.”

“And you didn’t say anything,” I repeated accusingly.

“No. Because it’s been to our advantage, hasn’t it?”

“Advantage how?”

“Well, we’d hardly have any sense of how we were progressing otherwise, would we?”

I let my jaw drop slightly in surprise. “You haven’t been doing it deliberately, have you?”

“Depends on how you define deliberately,” he said.

“As in with full knowledge of what would happen,” I supplied.

“Then yeah, I guess you could say I did it deliberately.”

“Crow!”

“What?”

“What about me?”

He had looked about ready to hit the ball out again, but he lowered his racket now and turned to face me squarely. “It was because of you, most of all, that I did it.”

I blinked at him. “Excuse me?”

He gestured weakly with the hand that was holding the ball, then let it fall to his side again. “You’ve been so happy. Before, you’d smile but you never laughed.” He paused and dropped his eyes, almost as if he was embarrassed, which surprised me even more than his words. “I like to hear you laugh. I like that you’re happy.”

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