As I’ve been drawing up my plans, getting ready to try NaNoWriMo in July, I’ve been struggling with one particular character. I know what role this person plays in the story; as a mirror for the main character, as a balance for some of the action in the story, as an important turning point for my main character at a critical point in the book. But I keep going back and forth on this person’s gender.
When I first met Alex, she was a woman. She was elegant and poised and tough, made so by the struggles she’s faced in her life. This toughness was what pulled together the motley collection of people who form the core of the story. She’s not one of the two or three central characters, but she’s in the second ring. Without her it would definitely not be the same story.
Early on in my NaNo prep I tore my story’s structure apart, fitting it together again more tightly. Along the way I dropped a couple of characters whose functions began to seem redundant, folding some of their traits into other, more central characters. In the process the story became tilted more toward women. The majority of the characters were female (not a problem in itself), and all the male characters were suddenly either enemies or nincompoops. I don’t like stories where women are only allowed demeaning roles, and didn’t want to see that in reverse. So Alex became male. His name changed to Frank (for some reason Alex didn’t have the same gravitas, the same degree of near-pompousness I wanted for this character). He became more of a hearty, good-old-boy type, but still with that core of toughness and leadership needed to pull together the motley crew.
The weird thing is – I couldn’t completely believe in Frank. That person over there, doing that plot-related or character-related thing, persisted in being Alex inside my head. I kept reminding myself that I’d made this change, but it just wouldn’t stick. So I gave up. Alex wouldn’t go away, so there she is, pulling her weight in the story.
This meant another restructuring, and my story got stronger yet again. I pulled one of the male characters that had been mostly window-dressing into the heart of the story. Suddenly I had a romantic story arc, which I hadn’t planned on but which added an emotionally important layer. Some of the roles of some of the central characters shifted aside a little to make room, and everything clicked. Poor Alex; her determination proves too rigid in the end, and things don’t turn out well for her. But she held onto her place in the story by her neatly-manicured fingernails. and I’m glad she did.
I think this is what some people mean when they say that their characters come alive and take over the story. It doesn’t feel that way to me; I’m in charge of my story, not the characters. But if these people don’t have a certain level of reality in my mind, so that I really care about what happens to them, then they never will for my readers. The story of Alex’s attempted gender-morphing will always remind me of that.
Have you ever had a character come alive and take over? Was this a good thing for your story?