The Quickening

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Quicken:  It’s a verb that has several obvious modern meanings (not to mention its use as a financial software trademark).  But it also has somewhat more obscure usage:  From Merriam-Webster’s (11th edition) — “To come to life, esp. to enter into a phase of active growth and development;” or ” to reach the state of gestation at which fetal motion is felt.”  That’s the sense I’m drawing upon here.

In discussing writing and character, I’ve often mentioned that when things are going well with my books, my characters begin to do things that surprise me.  They take conversations and events in directions I hadn’t anticipated.  They bend the plot to their will, and as a result they actually change my books, sometimes subtly, other times in hugely significant ways.  It’s one of those things about writing that people don’t get unless they’ve written themselves.  “She’s your character,” people will tell me.  “She’s a creation of your imagination.  She exists only in your mind.  How can you not be in control of everything she does?”

Good points all.  She (or he) is my character, and she did come into existence as a product of my imagination.  But I would argue with the idea that she exists only in my mind.  She exists in a world that I’ve created, which might seem like a fine distinction, but it’s really not.  That world isn’t static and it’s so huge that I can’t claim to have control over it.  It’s as fluid as . . . well, as fluid as thought, as unpredictable as imagination, as real as love and anger and sadness and joy and every other emotion that has its origin in my mind.  And to that end, I’m not certain that any one of us has complete control over his or her mind.  We constantly do and say things that we didn’t intend, and then wonder “Where the hell did that come from?”  Is it any wonder that our characters should take us by surprise now and then?

I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about character a lot recently.  A couple of weeks ago, on consecutive days, I posted about character here and at sfnovelists.com.  Those posts focused on the process by which I create characters and begin to fill in their life stories.  In other words, they dealt with the way I go about drawing up a blueprint for my characters, giving them backstory, and the kind of depth they’ll need to become those free agents who surprise and delight me as I write.

But there is a gap between creating the characters on paper and having them come to life.  That’s the quickening.  I’m there right now with my shiny new toy, my new project.  I did some of the worldbuilding before and have a good deal of information about my lead character.  I’ve even written and sold a short story about him.  But he has yet to come to life.  I’m in that gap; I sense that I’m very close to that spark that will animate him, and thus breathe life into the world around him.  It can’t be forced; like the quickening of a child, it will happen when he is ready.  All I can do is make certain he has what he needs to make that leap.  I nourish him with backstory and make his surroundings as rich and full as possible.  And I wait.

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10 comments to The Quickening

  • Another great post, David.

    Question if I may?

    What character made the most dramatic “bend” in your stories? Is there one that you had envisioned “A” but it totally veered past “B” and headed right into “C”? If a character tried to do that, would you let him/her, or would you pull him/her back?

    (yeah I know that is two questions, but bleh) :)

  • Okay, I see three question marks in that paragraph, but I’ll let it slide…. :)

    The character who did the most damage to my original series outline for any set of books was Cresenne in Rules of Ascension. She shares a bit of news with the reader at the very end of the book that totally changed everything. And — this is the truth — I didn’t know that this “news” was coming literally until I typed the words. It blew me away.

    I did think about pulling her back in that case, because it was so huge and it changed and complicated everything. I wrestled with it for days. But in the end I decided that I had to follow her on this one. Now that’s not to say that I wouldn’t pull back another character in similar circumstances or even for something less. In a way it depends on the character, on the story, on how much faith I have in both. There are times when I’ve felt a character trying to tug the story in a new direction and have decided that I just couldn’t go there. Why? Variety of reasons, but they come down really to trusting my instincts. In Cresenne’s case, I had to decide how important her integrity as a character was to the rest of the series, and in the end I decided that it was crucial, so I followed her. I wouldn’t have gone as far for a less important character. Does that help at all?

    Thanks for the comment. Glad you liked the post.

  • David, I recently had a character not fall for the guy written into the story for her to fall for. He’s too … something. There was no chemistry. But when a different character appeared — totally unsuitable as a love interest — she liked him. And I don’t. I really don’t.
    I have no idea where this subplot will go now.
    Faith

  • So the question, Faith, is whose chemistry matters more. If the characters are attracted to each other, do you step between them, or do you swallow your distaste and see where it goes? I know exactly what you’re going through, but I also have to say that I love issues like these. In many ways they’re the best part of what we do.

  • So true! And my answer is …

    Character chemistry matters. It just does. If the characters are truly mine, from inside me, and they are telling me somehing, then my sub-deep-unruly mind is telling me something. yes? My creative self is talking.

    For me writing is always about conflict and where it takes us. I have to guess that the conflict — and therefore the payoff — will be bigger if I follow my character. And if I’m wrong…
    Sigh. I’ll do it over.
    Faith

  • I don’t think you are wrong; that’s the right approach. At least it’s what I’d do.

  • Beatriz

    The quickening shows to the reader.

    I think every book or story I’ve ever read that had flat, one-dimensional characters is the direct result of the author never reaching that magical transition.

    Thank you for creating characters that do.

  • Thanks for that, B! From my perspective it makes writing more fun. I LOVE being surprised by my characters.

  • Brian

    I thought you were going to talk about Highlander and start writing in a scottish accent. But OK, its fascinating that your characters can have so much control over the story.

  • My brogue kind of sucks. But yeah, my characters have a lot of influence over the direction my stories take. Now most of the time, I’m steering them toward the ending I’ve already devised in my head. There are times though, when they even impact that.