A week ago I began working on a new book. It’s a collection of three short stories set in the same world as Project Snails, the massive fantasy novel I keep going on about (which is nearly finished but I’m letting it lie fallow to give myself a bit of perspective before I do my final round of edits and start trying to shove it down publishers’ throats). For the purposes of this blog I’ll call this new, smaller book Project Bitesize. The stories in it all follow the same character but are reasonably standalone – they have a bit of a noir flavour, and were conceived to be fun, light, fairly simple and relatively quick to write. What could go wrong?
I realised what could go wrong last Monday, the first day I worked on it full time. I had an outline for the first story, but as I began to write I discovered my outline was woefully inadequate. Even in writing the opening scene, which is primarily about setting up a mystery around a secondary character, it became painfully clear that the main character wasn’t pulling his weight. He was doing and saying whatever was necessary to advance the story, but had no particular agenda of his own. Halfway through the scene, I forced him to do something unexpected, in a crude attempt at turning him into a proper character, but in fact that had the opposite effect – he had subverted our expectations, yes, but in a way that made him even less understandable. There was no thread running through his words and actions to help readers, or me, to empathise with him.
At this point I started questioning everything about the project, particularly my own writing ability. How do you create an interesting and believable character? Suddenly I had no idea. I like to think there are at least a few examples in Project Snails, but I never followed any sort of formula to create them – they sort of grew in my head, over the course of many years and countless revisions of their story. When I started I didn’t know who they were – they were just (made up) names, each with a gender, age and arbitrary hair colour attached. From age 11 (I remember this because the youngest of my three main characters was slightly older than me when I began writing him) I spent years fumbling about, improvising a largely incoherent plot, and later abandoned more or less everything about the book aside from four or five characters and the fact that some of them board a ship quite near the beginning. So I was every bit as clueless then, I just didn’t know it. And doubt is certainly nothing new.
What’s thrown me is that it’s been so long since I wrote something completely new (the last major thing being the now dormant webseries Project Chippy back in 2011) that I’d kinda forgotten what to expect. After spending a couple of years writing characters I know inside out I forgot that there are such things as characters I don’t know. And the protagonist of Bitesize turned out to have no discernable personality at all. Why should he? I hadn’t given him any in my plan. I’d thought, maybe subconsciously, “Ah well, this story isn’t so much about him, it’s about the events he gets caught up in, and I’m sure I can write him to be just kind of generically charming and fun to go on a journey with”. How wrong I was.
Eventually I decided I’d have to shift the scene introducing the mystery back, and make the opening more about the main character – like how in A Study in Scarlet, the first couple of chapters are about Watson’s impressions of Holmes, before the titular case is introduced. And adding that scene has helped – I’m beginning to get a vague sense for the character of the main guy, and am enjoying building his tangled relationship with another recurring character, who was not even in the plan a week ago, but who has become absolutely central to the whole thing. I’ll probably work it all out in the end, though I’m coming to accept that the draft I’m writing now may turn out to be more an exercise in character-building than a publishable story.
If you want to take a painfully obvious lesson away from this post, try this one: if you want to write a story and you don’t know what your main character is like … um, you should probably fix that. I dunno. Despite having written a 200,000 word novel that I’m rather proud of, I sometimes feel I’m just learning for the first time what everyone else learned in their first creative writing class at primary school. Or perhaps writers simply have to relearn writing every time they start a new project?
Either way, I’m aiming to finish a draft of the first story by the end of this week, at which point I’ll reflect and decide what to do next, possibly in another blog post. It could be starting the second story, editing the first, going back to the more familiar territory of Snails, or sitting around watching Orange is the New Black and eating a whole bag of Mini Eggs. What mental state will I be in this time next week? Who can say? Never mind characters, sometimes I feel as if I’m the one I really don’t know.