If you’ve been reading a few of the things that have been passing through my writing desk over the past year, you’ll probably notice that I’ve taken a number of stabs at Sleepwalkers — the current crop of stories will be the fourth set featuring Abigail and her friends. I know I’m running the risk of exhausting your ability to care about these guys before I even get to tell their stories, and that prospect terrifies me. Still, trust me when I say that I share your exasperation at these half-measures, and I know the time is quickly approaching where I’ll just have to sink or swim.
The reason I’m having such trouble with the setting is that I don’t have an entirely clear idea on the rules of the universe or how anything works. It’s my first time actually dealing with magic and fantasy on a systemic level, and it’s a really daunting thing to consider. Will nailing down a rule here actually cause significant problems during the third act, for example? What sort of unforeseen consequences will people who are smarter and wilier than me discover? What if something that looks good on paper actually becomes a huge pain in the ass for the story, but it’s too fundamental to remove easily? So forth and so on.
That’s bad enough, but Abigail has been giving me absolute fits ever since I first met her. I’ve wanted to write a female protagonist for a while now — and Abigail just popped into my head with a story and personality all ready-made. As I started exploring her, though, I realized just how…complicated it would be to tell. There’s a lot going on here; not only is there this brand new shadow-world of modern fantasy that we have to discover together, but there’s also the matter of Abigail’s background and what that does to the story.
She comes from an abusive home, and that emotional and physical abuse becomes a major trigger for Abigail’s “discovery” into her true nature. But that’s a very tricky landscape to walk through. Major abuse at the hands of a family member causes all sorts of emotional and mental issues that are difficult enough to explore; what happens when you’re in a setting where thoughts and emotions actually become real? What does that do to someone? And how can people who find themselves in similar situations within the real world learn from and empathize with this sort of thing? It’s an exciting puzzle to crack for me, but a very difficult one. I don’t want to sensationalize this kind of trauma, or over-boil it into some sort of melodrama. It needs to have a proper weight and perspective.
Perhaps I’m just not ready to tackle Abigail’s story yet, but I feel like I need to get it out. It’s an important one to me. There are other protagonists in other settings — Matthew and his chimerical universe, Abernathy and the Unstable Future — where their personalities feel inextricably tied to their settings. I want to talk about these specific people in these specific worlds. Separating them has never really been an option for me. I can’t imagine Abigail popping up to talk Matthew through his change, for example.
I’m curious if other people have that same sense of firmness with their characters. I suppose that’s one of the reasons cross-overs and fan-fictions always bothered me; I buy characters as an extension of their environment, and the universe a storyteller constructs is a relatively fixed one. I don’t like seeing Miles Morales jump into Earth-616 to have an adventure with Peter Parker, for example; it feels wrong, oddly incestuous, for parallel universes to touch so closely.
At any rate, Abigail is proving to be a really tough nut to crack. I want to fully explore the damage done by her father, but I also don’t want her to be so broken that the audience can’t empathize with her. I want to portray the helplessness that victims of abuse feel, but I don’t want to make her helpless and passive. I think the key to understanding Abigail is to read a bit more about emotional and physical abuse, what that does to you, but it’s quite difficult stuff for me to mine. I have a feeling that once I have a firm grasp of Abby’s situation, her pyschology and issues, the world will solidify around her. As always, my protagonist is my anchor for any setting, the fixed point that I can always come back to once I’ve explored the world a bit.
For now, though, I’ll be using this latest crop of Sleepwalkers stories to wrap my brain around a few of the things I’d like to do and get to know the supporting characters a bit more. I think the characters are key in cracking this setting, though I could be wrong.
What about you, fellow writers? Do you have a trick or tool you use when you’re trying to nail down a character or setting?