Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
When Characters Take Control
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
There I was, all prepared to write the death scene of my historical figure, and I was debating about whether my (entirely fictional) protagonist would repent her wicked ways or carry her jealousy into the next world with her, when POOF! I accidentally killed off another character. There are three main characters: the protagonist, the protagonist’s best friend who is also the narrator, and the historical figure. There’s a minor fourth character who serves as bearer of news and as general innocent, so the others can have edifying conversations. I’d written the historical stuff that needed to happen in this chapter when the innocent wanders off into the woods (mushroom hunting), topples off a precipice, and breaks her leg. She manages to flutter about being carried back to the monastery by a burly manservant, but then she succumbs to shock. I sat there bawling my eyes out as I wrote her faltering; telling the narrator what is to be done with her meager belongings and then the silent aftermath of her death. But once it was written, I was stunned. I hadn’t planned to kill her off—in fact, now I have a problem with the end of the book.I tried to un-write it, to bring her back to life. Then I tried to justify the death, showing how hard things were in the middle ages and how crude medicine was. I also told myself that it was a foreshadowing of everyone else dying in the next two chapters, everyone but the narrator. (They are all quite elderly. Obviously the historical figure’s life has to end, and I wanted the jealous protagonist to live a roughly parallel life.) Then, I told someone what I’d done, and how silly I felt crying over a character that on some level I had chosen to kill off. She said, “Don’t write things that don’t promote your plot.” Wise words. However. Because it’s not a complete work of fiction, some of my plot is driven by historical facts. Chapters are defined by getting to the next momentous event. To keep it from being dry and sounding like non-fiction, I interspersed fictional events that sometimes had to do with furthering the plot and often had to do with revealing life in the 12th century, especially in a nunnery, which is not at all like modern preconceptions (if my writing group is any indication). I’d addressed the historical event in the chapter already, and because I have a psychological problem with having chapters each of 16-20 pages and then suddenly writing one of only four pages, my sweet little minor character went slipping off the edge. Oh, I could have leapt forward in time a few months and let the historical figure die her natural and well documented death. But I wanted that particular event to occupy a whole chapter on its own, so the weight of it can be revealed. And I wanted room for my protagonist’s thoughts about it. So I killed off my innocent. I hadn’t planned to, didn’t know I was going to do it until it was already underway, but that’s what I did.Many years ago, some creative writing teacher or other told me that when your characters take on their own lives and you lose control of their actions, that’s when you’ve written a plausible character. I’ve had it happen before, where the characters began behaving in a way that I had not planned or foreseen but that was entirely in keeping with my plot. This is the first time where it took the plot somewhere I hadn’t expected to go.And I’ve slept on it for a few days now, and I think I like it that way. She stays dead. Rest in peace.