“So, there’s a marriage proposal on the table?”
“And you knew about it?” I looked at Tobias.
“And… Emma has a ‘much hated blood enemy’?”
“And, Tobias is getting a last name?”
“Okay,” I said, “because before dinner? None of this was true.”
“Things are moving kind of fast tonight,” said Gavin.
Except from “Along the Watchtower” novel draft
Character voices are an interesting creature. Many times they are described in the simplest of terms. When I am writing, I often find that the best character moments are those where, pardon the cliche, the characters write themselves. That’s not what I want to talk about. I want to discuss characters that simply won’t shut up.
Every character has a voice. Every character has a story to tell. My job is to tell that story. Not that this is an easy task, but, occasionally, the characters want to say more than I intended. That happens.
Aaron Sorkin wrote a love story about the President of the United States of America in the American President. The original draft was 385 pages. Eventually, the movie was cut to about 120. The remnants of the 1995 movie didn’t go away. In fact, Sorkin took many of his ideas, as the characters continued to grow and wrote 85 of 88 episodes of the West Wing, a political drama. Now, I can’t speak for Sorkin and I don’t know a whole lot about the TV screen writing process, but it sounds a lot like the characters and ideas he developed for the American President would not go away. It’s a pretty long way from 385 pages for a movie to almost 4 solid years of writing an hour long TV drama.
Sometimes, characters simply have more to say. In my experience, characters have a finite number of things to say. That is, only so much space can be occupied by their thoughts. In the Dark Masters, the book I’m working on, I have two such characters. They are complex and rich, I hope, but the perspective they bring and their arcs have run their course. As it turns out, I think they’re some of the more interesting characters but the voices they have only stay for so long.
We like characters. That’s how they work. And sometimes, we want them to stay around longer. Except, when they do, they just aren’t as good. As I writer, I need to listen to that voice, the one that tells me when to step down. Maybe it’s similar to athlete staying past their prime or having a career ending injury too soon.
Other times, all the characters spring to life, fully formed. When I was writing Along the Watchtower, a short story (not related to the song), I knew all the characters by heart. Originally conceived as a short story, final project for a college class, I soon found that the characters had more to say than the 4,000 words I limited them to. That wasn’t to say I couldn’t tell that story within the limit I prescribed. I did. But, I knew there was more. How these teenagers had met and why they were friends. How their lives intertwined and who loved who and who was friends and best friends; all these ideas continued to speak. From that, I was able to expand the story. Currently, the draft of Along the Watchtower sits at just over 19,000 words. I think I might be only halfway through telling the story of seven kids from Philly.
Part of the process is knowing when to listen to those voices. Along the Watchtower screams for a longer draft, that these characters have something interesting to say. Other stories I’ve written, like the Black Flower were once much longer, but I’ve shortened. The Black Flower was originally 12,500 words. I was able to take the core of the story and reduce that to just over 3,000. The content is there. The character moments exist. In fact, I’d say the moments work even better. But the story isn’t bogged down by needless description or extraneous characters.
There’s always a tipping point. The job is to understand which part of what they’re saying needs expansion and when they need to be ignored. That doesn’t mean you don’t listen. They exist to tell their own story. As I writer, my job is to put that on paper and decide if it’s worth the trouble or space. Honestly, though? The characters voices are the ones who tell me when it’s time to take them off the stage. It’s their story. They just tell me what they want to.