The Character that Got Away

Intimate moment - Witzel photoIn the mind of a writer, the character that got away lingers like the shadow of what might have been, the road not travelled, the life one never lived. Definitely a whopper of a fish. We don’t forget, for once writers bring characters to life, those characters – regardless of whether they ever appear on the written page – are real to us.

Couple on beach - Witzel photo

I know of what I speak. In The Light Never Lies, Bethany has a crisis of meaning after her near drowning at the end of Disappearing in Plain Sight. This leads to her desire to have a baby. Earlier versions of the novel had her successful in her wishes. The baby was a boy and they named him Caleb. For a number of reasons, this baby didn’t work out but I still hanker after that child.

A character named Alison, a new career counsellor for Micah Camp, hit the cutting room floor during edits for The Light Never Lies and Chasing Down the Night. Imagine getting cut twice! She simply has to make it into the next Crater Lake novel. I can’t bear to look in her eyes otherwise.

University of Arizona - Witzel photo

I started out with a list of about fifteen core characters for The Jennerville Women’s Chamber of Commerce – a possible next writing project. The other day, I got out a big sheet of paper and did some town planning. What fun to map out your own town. But there has been one major drawback – I now have a list of twenty core characters and an additional list of possibilities as long as my arm. The only way all of these character stories can be told is if this new book turns into a few trilogies. I suspect there will be many more characters that get away – for now!

For some, the idea of investing time and energy in characters that may never make the final cut is not a great production strategy. To those naysayers,  I throw up my hands and shout – but wait, writing fiction isn’t supposed to be efficient and it can never be straightforward. This is a winding path, a circuitous route, a process that requires an abundance of material upon which the author may draw in order to get the job done. Or in other words, tell the story.

I’d love to open up a discussion on the issue of characters that didn’t quite make the final cut. How do you deal with them? Are they gone for good or just waiting in the wings for a moment to grab centre stage?

Witzel photo 1

I do keep threatening – this fellow just has to end up in a novel one day. There is too much character in that face to resist.

19 comments on “The Character that Got Away

  1. codecalla says:

    Characters must live and breathe and need. It’s wonderful that you have so many to call up and write about. Creating a town with extensive back stories is a great idea.

    • Creating the whole town was great fun and will certainly provide any number of character options. Yes indeed, they must live and breathe and need. I like that. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Always appreciated.

  2. P. C. Zick says:

    I had to tone down two characters in my last novel, Native Lands. I needed to edit the book and A.J. and Buddy needed to be toned down, while fading into the background. I kept all those scenes I cut. Perhaps at least one of them will come to life in another book. They were both protagonists, and I probably take too much pleasure in creating my bad guys. They shouldn’t dominate a book, which is what threatened when their stories kept popping up in the novel.

    • It always makes me shiver just a wee bit when a character goes AWOL so to speak and takes on a far greater presence than I, who naively thought I was in charge, had planned for said character. I understand the need to tone characters down. In the book that is coming from my mother’s discarded manuscript there were a number of characters who were so over the top they simply begged to be tamed. Good idea to save all discarded material. One never knows, right?

      • P. C. Zick says:

        That’s right. I’ve used characters I’ve discarded in other stories. In the case of A.J. and Buddy, they either need to be in different novels or combined into one bad one!

  3. MariHoward says:

    Sometimes my characters that don’t make it has transformed or melted into someone who does … just at present, a couple from an old novel that didn’t make it are nudging to join the Mullins group in the next adventures of Max and Jenny of BB and The LabyrinthYear …this will leave some characters from the old story looking for a home (or is it a stage?) … and Jenny nearly conceived another child … will she have him in the next book? Nice to chat about this problem of characters … obviously some others out there like me whose ‘characters’ are more than cardboard cut-outs!

    • That is a great point, Mari – sometimes characters do end up melded together or even with their traits spread out over a few others. I love talking characterization and am loving the newsy comments on this post.

  4. noelleg44 says:

    I’m at the point of killing off some of my darlings. I have a list of characters that are minor which could move up to major status, still thinking on it. I love the photo – what character in that man’s face. I occasionally see someone of whom I think,” That’s —” one of my characters. Sometimes I get up the courage to take their picture.

    • My characters are usually have voices before I get an idea of what they look like. Once, in an airport, I jotted down a detailed description of a woman sitting a couple of rows away. I knew when I looked at her that she was one of my characters – a voice I had heard. Best of luck for all your characters when it comes to moving from minor to major.

  5. Gwen Stephens says:

    I love hearing about the characters who had a presence in early drafts of your work! I feel for that poor gal who was cut twice. You’d better do something about her, or her self esteem is going to take a major hit! I think every writer’s been there, and I think it’s part of the creative process. You have to let the imagination run wild and free during the outlining and early drafting stages. But for a honed, focused story, something or someone will inevitably have to go. My 14-year-old protagonist in my novel-in-progress (well, it’s sort of in progress), was a love child conceived by the couple who was not meant to be in my very first romance novel attempt. I’m not sure if I’ll ever return to that original story (not sure it has enough substance), but their son stayed with me. How did he and his single mother end up? What effects did unexpected pregnancy, poverty, and no father in the picture have on this kid? And what if he was born with an extraordinary talent? Would a child in this position have the opportunity to pursue it? As you well know, it’s these kinds of questions that germinate a story.

    • Your comment illustrates so well what I’m trying to get across in this post, Gwen. We really do invest so much into these people who populate our works. They do become real to us and we think about them long after the last page is written or – gasp – we’ve had to shelf them or radically alter what we had first intended for them. And of course, all the questions that arise open the doors to more and more stories.

  6. Roy McCarthy says:

    Interesting indeed about your discarded characters Fran. I’ve recently snipped a whole storyline featuring one badass criminal but he’s still tucked away in a sub-folder. But I more like the way a minor character occasionally keeps whispering for attention until I allow him/her jump into another project 🙂

    • Too true, Roy – I have had the experience a couple of times now when a character I thought had a small but defined role in a novel simply shifted the whole game board on me. I never planned for Alexander to become as strong a character as he has. Some characters simply do that.

  7. I’m reminded of this hilarious comic:

  8. Oh, I can so relate. Those characters are real. I tend to develop my MC’s in great detail before writing, and they’re unlikely to get axed because the plot is well outlined up front. The secondary characters get a little less life in the beginning so they can grow into their roles. And the rest come to life or fade away with far less pain. A fun post, Francis.

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