For this year’s Clarion Write-A-Thon, I decided to pull the trigger on a story that had been gestating for some time, a novel called Sleepwalkers. It was originally my idea for a TV series based on Changeling: the Dreaming, and evolved into a series of novels instead. Since White Wolf ended C:tD along with the rest of their World of Darkness setting, and since the world of Changeling had pretty significant issues anyway, I thought it might be a good idea to use it more as inspiration for a modern fantasy and make my own rules about the fae. I realize that every part of this last paragraph is pretty geeky, but this is what the post’s about. So I’ve warned you about what you’re in for!
My main character, Abigail, was fairly clear in my head only as far as what happened to her goes. I didn’t really know much else about her — what she wanted, how she’d react to her situation — and in the first three chapters I wrote over the course of the month that lack of knowledge quickly became painfully obvious.
In the first chapter, Abigail is introduced as a school-aged girl who has trouble with math and an imaginary friend. There really isn’t a whole lot of time to get into her head before I introduce the world, and then quickly shatter it because that’s what I imagined would make a gripping opening to the book. The next time we see her, she’s in a mental institution and her imaginary friend advises her to wait to be rescued.
As soon as I realized the situation I was writing, I knew I had a big problem. In the beginning Abigail isn’t an actual person — she’s just a tool that I’m using to introduce the concept of the world. Later on, I struggled to give her some sort of agency, a bit of conflict that would force her into action and make her an engaging character. The last of the third chapter was spent delving inside of her head a bit more to form that conflict, and in the end she makes a choice that actually will have consequences. However, it all comes down to “she was rescued, but not by someone she’d like to stick around with.”
This is a huge issue for me. I’m rather sensitive to the fine line I need to walk as a man writing a female main character. I don’t want to make her “just one of the boys” but at the same time I don’t want to diminish her by making her inert in her own story. It feels like the first three chapters lay the worst foundation possible for having Abigail be vibrant and active, so chances are I’m going to scrap the whole thing and start over.
I still want to use the scenario I’ve created in the first three chapters, because I love the idea and I think I have a good handle of the setting. But there needs to be a more thorough exploration of Abigail and who she is before the first page is even written. What does she want? Where does she come from? How does she feel about the things that have happened to her leading up to this story?
Once I know who she is and what she’s like, I can start identifying weaknesses in her personality or ideas of the world, and that’s where I can start building the arc of her story. Unfortunately, I can’t really move forward with the novel until I discover that, so the ideas and broader themes will have to remain vague for now.
More as this story develops. Chances are I’ll be posting small snippets of stories that try to nail her down. But first, what do you guys do to get inside the head of a character? Or is that even a concern — does that come through writing, outlining, or producing the plot? Do characters tend to spring into your heads fully formed?