When Your Characters Surprise You
PANTSERS AND OUTLINERS
Fiction writers fall into one of two categories, generally: pantsers, and outliners.
Pantsers don't outline, preferring, as their name implies, to fly by the seats of their, well. Pantaloons. Right. Those. Outliners, meanwhile, are more anxious, and want a solid roadmap before they set out on their journey.
I'm one of the latter, an anxious outliner. Years working as a staff writer and editor for newspapers and magazines made me most comfortable with reporting first, writing later. I fill yellow legal pads with detailed character sketches and plot outlines before ever sitting down to write.
SOMETIMES CHARACTERS IGNORE YOUR OUTLINE
And yet, even with all that meticulous planning, sometimes my characters still manage to surprise me. Well, ignore me. Same thing, really.
In my new novel, HOLLOW BEASTS, my lead character Jodi Luna surprised me, big time, by deciding she didn't really want a boyfriend.
I'd outlined a very clear romantic path for Jodi. She was a widow, 45 years old, a single mom. Her husband Graham Livingston had died in a tragic rock-climbing accident three years before the first book began. I had her returned home to rural northern New Mexico in the aftermath of Graham's death, in order to figure out who she was without him, to go back to her roots in a place she'd been running from all her adult life. I saw Jodi as lonely and wounded, and created not one but two potential love interests for her.
The first was Lyle Daggett, a stoic, smart, insightful ranch manager in his 50s. Cut from the Sam Elliott/Kevin Costner cloth, Lyle has something iconic about him. He's got twinkly blue eyes, an acerbic wit, and a mysterious past. He's also not what most people assume when they see a six-four cowboy white guy. He speaks several languages, and votes blue "only because something further left isn't available."
The second was Dr. Henley Bethel, a thirty-something wildlife biologist and veterinarian who, like Jodi, is newly employed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. He specializes in apex predators. He's from Oakland, originally, a handsome black man, and something of a recovering hipster.
I had it all planned out. The love triangle. Jodi would teeter between these two beautiful and amazing men, as protagonists do. We'd all start to root for one or the other. Jodi'd have fun with both, but it would get messy and complicated.
But Jodi, it seemed, had other plans.
WHAT JODI WANTED THAT I HADN'T ANTICIPATED
I just finished writing the sequel to HOLLOW BEASTS, called BLOOD MOUNTAIN, a couple of weeks ago. It's due out next year. It was as I was writing this second book that Jodi let me know she wasn't really interested in a relationship.
I was stunned.
She told me she had married Graham too young, that she hadn't really had time to figure herself out. She said she didn't want to jump into anything with someone else right away. Not anything serious, anyway.
And while Jodi has a healthy sexy drive, she just wasn't all that impressed with the idea of committing to a man again. She was finally on her own, and loved it.
What's more, she told me she was a little bicurious - something to explore in future books.
"Are you sure?" I asked her, in my head. I was already getting notes from readers requesting hot and heavy scenes with Jodi and Lyle. She'd cozied up to him in book one.
"I'm sure," she said. "Please don't question me. Graham did enough of that."
"But what about the two men I created for you?" I asked. "Are they not perfection?"
"Lyle's a good guy. He's solid. He'll wait while I figure myself out," she said.
"Henley's gorgeous and kind, but c'mon. He's way too young for me. I think he'd be better off with (Deputy) Ashley [Romero], who's at a similar life stage. How did you not see that she'd fall for him? I can't compete with Ashley for Henley. That would ruin everything with Ashley and me."
"But I wanted you to be a cougar," I said. "That's hot."
"I have no interest in younger men," said Jodi. "I literally just lost the very immature man I married too young, and you think I want to go back to a man who's still dressing like he's about to go skateboarding?" Jodi paused here, to laugh at me. The nerve, honestly.
"I mean, he's cute, though?" I offered.
"And?" she asked me. "In case you didn't notice, I'm over here trying to finally grow up. And I want to do that on my own, with visitors from time to time. Who cares about cute? My God."
"Henley could visit," I suggested. She shook her head vehemently.
"He deserves better," she said. "He wants something serious. He's ready to start a family. So is Ashley. Let them find their way to each other."
"Wow," I said. "I had not thought of that."
"You should have," she said.
IT GETS EVEN MORE INTERESTING
"Also, of there's a book three," said Jodi, "I want you to create a woman, a butch lesbian or maybe a trans man, for me to fall for, in, like, book three or four," said Jodi.
Yeah," said Jodi. "Make her, like, an older Mae Martin."
"Fine," I said. "What if she..."
"They," said Jodi. "I believe Mae goes by they."
"They, sorry. What if they were, like, a womanizing bull rider with serious angry Eminem energy?"
"Perfect," said Jodi. "Look. I've spent my whole life putting things in neat little boxes to make everyone else happy. Let me live without labels for a while. Let me just be a human, without expectations, without strings attached."
"But you were destined to be with Lyle," I whined. "Readers already want you and Lyle to be a thing."
"I know," she said. "He's great. We'll get there, eventually. But let me take my time getting there. He can wait."
I think these kinds of changes in characters occur in the author at a subconscious level, and bubble up. As I consider these changes in her, they make perfect sense. They aren't what I need, personally. I would love for Jodi to fall in love and get married again, because that's what Alisa would like in her own life. But that's not what Jodi wants or needs right now. And she let me know it.
Writing is magic, playing with ghosts.