Inside the Writing Process: Listening to Your Characters

Rest and relaxation: that was the agenda for the day. After two intense weeks of me attending classes, while Greg sat in a dorm without even one working cable hook-up, and then a five-day work week, while we simultaneously tried to catch up on everything that had fallen behind while we were gone, we were due for some recreational activities. We were heading up the old stage road that runs on the north side of the Arkansas, from just east of Howard, all the way to Wellsville. We had chosen this route because a portion of this road is four-wheel drive, and we wanted to give our Jeep a little workout.
So, here we are, bumping along a particularly rocky patch, and I find myself thinking about the area terrain and how it might be worked into the western story that I began for class three weeks ago. It occurs to me that one of the changes that I made to the story last night is going to cause me a major plot flaw. Where an act of nature is my protagonist’s saving grace, it seems that, were it real, it would also cause her horse to kill her. I’m trying to work it out in my head, but I just can’t find any way around it. If lightning strikes, the horse is going to get scared and take off, dragging my character, Delilah, along by the noose around her neck, which happens to be attached to his saddle horn, and she will be helpless to stop it. I hardly notice the roughness of the terrain, as I am bumped and jostled, my thoughts overshadowing the external world.
The scene I’m trying to hash out follows the brutal beating and rape of my protagonist. After reading my first draft, my instructor felt a hesitation in my writing of this scene, and he was right. I was hesitant to write this scene. I knew that it was risky, and I might turn some readers off with it, but I felt that it is a crucial part of the story, which sets up everything that follows, so I had chosen to try to write it anyway. “If you are going to write it, don’t do it half-way,” he said, meaning that I should depict the horrendousness of the scene fully and not let my own hesitation show through in my writing. I thought about and decided that this scene really is integral to my story, so I must hurdle my own hesitancy, and write the scene, so my readers can buy into it.
My current dilemma is that I’ve chosen to scrap the scene that follows and start over, so I have to figure out a way for Delilah to survive the horrendous scene and go on, without the handsome stranger riding in to save her, (after all, it is a western, not a romance), because I wrote him out when I scrapped it, so he no longer exists. From out of nowhere, I hear a voice, “Why do I have ta be so damn passive?”
It startles me out of my thoughts about the book. I look around to see where the voice had come from, but we are still rocking and bouncing along, and even if we weren’t, there’s not a soul for miles along this little used trail. Greg didn’t appear to have heard anything unusual, and I wasn’t about to say anything. After living with me for thirty years, he knows I’m a little crazy, but I don’t see the need to remind him of this.
“Do ya really think I’m just gonna lie down and take it? Yer instructor told you that I was too passive, and yer peers agreed, so why won’t ya listen to ‘em?” The voice piped up again. It is a distinctly female voice, and now I recognize it. It is the voice of Delilah.
Another one of my instructors had talked about letting your characters speak to you, because they’re the only ones that know what is supposed to happen in the story. You see, it’s not really your story. She said that it’s their story, and if you listen, the characters will tell you what is supposed to happen next, because they know, even when you don’t. I had never created a character that was real enough to talk to me, so I don’t think I really got it at the time. Now, here is Delilah, talking in my head, telling me how to fix what’s not right in my story! I can really hear her, even if my husband doesn’t. Now, I get it!
“Okay.” I say in my head, (again, no need to alarm my poor husband). “But what can you do? Your hands are tied behind your back, and the noose is around your neck. Can you really do anything but be passive at this point?”
“What if my hands weren’t tied?” she asks.
“But, your hands are tied,” I say.
“What if they weren’t?” she counters.
I sigh. “Okay. If your hands weren’t tied, you might be able to save yourself, assuming the impact of the fall doesn’t knock you out cold.” I had assumed that it would, but perhaps Delilah is tougher than I had, at first, believed.
“So I’ll ask ya again. Why are ya making me so damn passive?”
“Well you certainly aren’t passive when it comes to giving me advice on the story,” I reply, with more than a little indignity. “But if your hands weren’t tied, you wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. You are only passive because you have no choice, given the situation.”
“Exactly!” she says. “So, allow me to change the situation.”
By now, my mind is shifting gears. If her hands were freed somehow, at the end of the scene, she might still be dragged by her horse, but she might be able to prevent him strangling her to death. “So, you’re saying that your character wouldn’t just lie there passively? That you would be working to free yourself, even as he is beating you?”
“Now yer using yer head,” she says and, I swear, I felt her wink at me. Then, she was gone. Her exit left a vacuum of space where my mind had been focused. She had only come and stayed long enough to get me back on track, so the story could go where it was supposed to.
“Where do you want to stop?” Greg asked, bringing me back to the rocky trail of reality.
I smile. When we do stop, I will have my pen and paper ready, because now I know what happens in my story. My character told me. Now, all I have to do is write it down.

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