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.

Writers are a Cruel and Sometimes Heartless Breed


Writing can make us cruel, almost heartless at times, in the service of the story. We go about wrecking ruin on the characters we have created, bringing them to the limit of their endurance. We have the noblest intent. We seek their enlightenment. We mean for them to end the story as so much more than they began – they fight the good fight and find the treasure we have hidden for them. To treat that which you have brought into being with such intent is not for the faint of heart.

The other day I took a character I really like and brought him to the very brink – I put him in a situation that had the potential to ruin everything he had worked for. And I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. As Gustave Flaubert says, “One does not choose one’s subject matter; one submits to it.” I repeat, this is not for the faint of heart.

At other times, a writer’s work is more surprising than cruel. I have one character that went from having short, straight, black hair in her character sketch to being written with curly, blonde hair. Suffice to say, with blonde hair she will have to morph out of the ethnic background I had originally given her. Out of nowhere, a minor character got a name change. Pete didn’t sound like the name of a guy who would do what I was suggesting this guy would do. One character, whom I thought would make a big stink about something, decided to be completely supportive, while shifting the role of the heavy to another character entirely. To say nothing of the fact that I have left a young person in the hospital suffering for days now and can’t seem to return to that part of the story and write the poor kid out the other side. Oh, the trials and tribulations of a story in progress.

The day is brilliant with winter sunshine and the lake looks like a glittering mass of silver diamonds. I have been trying to pump out my 3000 words on The Light Never Lies but the last couple of days have been a real struggle. I produced about 1200 words yesterday and when I read them over this morning, I found only one line that seemed worth keeping. The rest read like crap. Things aren’t going much better today.

On another front, my work on the second round revisions for Disappearing in Plain Sight is done and the e-proofs are back in the hands of Friesen Press. I am glad that I only paid for two rounds of revision. I think I could probably tinker with the manuscript forever – changing a word here, re-thinking the use of a comma there. Enough, already, I am ready for this novel to be launched out into the world – warts and all.

As it has been at every stage of the process, I have no idea what will come after I approve the second round of revisions. But we must be coming close to publication. (If I’m being completely naïve here, please don’t tell me. Thanks in advance.)

Maybe my hard slogging over the keyboard the last two days has to do with reading Disappearing in Plain Sight for the 500th time. The writing is as smooth as my current state of ability could make it. When I go back and look at my first draft of The Light Never Lies, it’s bound to suffer by comparison. Or maybe it is just crap. Time will tell.

(The above photo was taken back in 2008 on the campus of the University of Toronto)

Finding an Outline Plan that Works

I’ve been working on a couple of interesting outlining ideas for The Light Never Lies and they’ve really paid off in terms of word output – I managed almost 3000 words yesterday and if even every second word of that is usable, I’m pleased by the outcome.

A couple of days ago, I took twenty sheets of blank paper and cut them all in half so I had a stack of forty pieces of paper. I went for forty because I think the book will have about forty chapters (mostly based on the fact that Disappearing in Plain Sight was that long). I then dug out a few packages of sticky notes in two colours – bright yellow for current action and a lime green for back story. I started writing action segments on the sticky notes and putting them onto the chapter pages.

This task was fairly straightforward for the first ten chapters of the book – the first draft of these chapters are already written. Chapters eleven through thirteen were sketchier but still doable. I can see that far ahead to where the story is going.

After Chapter thirteen, I had to switch gears and move to the bottom of the pile of chapter papers to fill in stickie notes for the last four chapters – these aren’t written yet but were pretty easy to outline. I’ve known how the book would end for a while now.

That left me with quite a stack of blank pages to cover the middle of the novel. So, I just started brainstorming every idea I could come up with for action scenes, descriptions, and back story, writing each idea onto a sticky note and placing it at random on the leftover pages. The time will come to arrange the ideas in some kind of storied order. The most important thing now is to have a sense of what the action could be. And naturally, the more I write and think about the characters, the more connections I make related to how they interact with one another. The characters definitely begin to drive the action of the story and I need to leave space for that to happen.

The other thing I have been working on are drawings for the layout of certain settings in the novel. By no means to scale (my architectural design trained husband would double over laughing looking at these sketches) – but they give me a spatial understanding of how characters can move around the settings and what they might see in a given location.

I learned something important writing and editing Disappearing in Plain Sight. Well, I actually learned several things but in the interest of brevity, let me stay on track here. I created elaborate back stories for every one of the characters in that book and wrote endless notes and descriptions of the various settings. What I didn’t realize then, was that only a fraction of that stuff would ever find its way into the finished novel. I’m glad to have learned that reality. I think it will make it easier to distinguish, in subsequent drafts of this newest novel, what really needs to be cut. Parts of the story are written for me so I can continue to explore the characters and allow them to move the action of the story forward. This is a necessary process for the author but not something readers need not be subjected to. What is it Stephen King says – first draft minus 10% = finished draft.