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May 2013 - Falling in Love with a Main Character

It can be a problem, falling in love with a main character. I typically have avoided this pitfall by stepping into another one: feeling ambivalence, hostility, or downright antagonism toward a main character. In the case of Guillaume de Vallon, it was all three emotions, along with a steady level of disdain. In retrospect, I can see that hostility can mask a very passionate form of love. I was blithely and dangerously unaware of that factor during the writing of THE DAWN; I simply wrote and allowed the emotions to flow with the words. I was a much “younger” woman before the completion of this massive work.

For the longest time during the conceptualization of this character (a duration which spanned about fifteen years), I called him “Beauregard.” He was just about the most unsympathetic character I’d ever created straight off the drawing board of my mind. He started “life” as a double agent, hardly an auspicious beginning for a hero, even a reluctant one. I truly struggled with Beauregard. All of the other characters fell neatly into place, or tended to move themselves into place once they were set into motion in the novel. But Guillaume, well, Guillaume remained “Beauregard” in my heart and mind for quite a ways into the draft of what was then titled “Nottingham.”

My very dear friend offered to be my reader of this first (and only!) draft; I will refer to her hereinafter as Reader. Dear Husband was the go-between for us. Sometime during the summer of 2009, he came home one day, looking so happy when he handed me the first set of comments for Book One. One comment from Reader was that she waiting patiently to find out about the relationship between Guillaume and Camille. She said that she knew it was “very complicated.”

I wrote back, “It is very complicated.”

Reader was less enthused with Book Two which she read during the fall of 2009. She took this book to be about “the military portion of the novel.” I somewhat agreed, but then I gave her some information about the other purposes of this book, and she quickly understood them. (Reader was very taken by my talent for description of furniture and architecture. I would cite some of her flattering comments but they were part of the post-novel purge.) It was obvious to me that Reader preferred Guillaume to Arthur. That preference was a favorable observation for this novelist.

Her reading of Book Three proved to be a momentous event. Dear Husband came home one spring day in 2010 and he said in a hesitant, worried voice: “Reader, she is having a problem with . . . Guillaume.”

I calmly asked, “Does she know that Guillaume is a fictional character?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Oh, great. She’s fallen in love with him.”

There followed many emails and intense discussions about Guillaume. Reader said that she knew her problem was because I’d created a very complex character and she did not fully comprehend him. I replied that it wasn’t “her” problem: the character was complex, but the reason why she did not understand him was because I’d not drawn him properly. Thus, she did not “see” him the way that I “saw” him: this problem was not her fault, but mine.

Reader had come to truly dislike Guillaume. Hate is a very strong word, but she came very close to hating him. There were comments that made me shudder. As much as I tried to justify and explain this character as I believed I’d rendered him, I sadly realized that the “Guillaume” as seen by Reader was not someone that I cared for either! I knew there was a huge problem with my depiction of this main character. He was there, somewhere, but I’d not yet fully or accurately drawn him. He was all wrong, in terms of the plot. These realizations produced some very ominous feelings within this novelist.

Dear Husband then explained to me that I had not explained motivation fully, if at all. I came to an all-stop in the draft of this novel. (I was somewhere in the draft of Book 4, probably toward the end.) I had to work with “my Guillaume” until he became “his own Guillaume,” the character needed for the novel. I saw that I’d been unwilling to fully plumb the depths of his character, partly because I’d not thought enough about those depths. In some ways, I’d not left “Beauregard” behind me to create “Guillaume.” I realized that this character, like any other fictional character, is not created as much as he is discovered! I’d not yet found the real “Guillaume.”

Many hours were spent discussing this character with Dear Husband. For a long time, Guillaume felt like a part of the household. Privately, I spoke with “him,” aloud (in Parisian French, bien entendu). I came to know everything that could be known about Guillaume (even though certain things were to be purposefully left un-revealed to the reader, so that the reader could sense those unknowns and “discover” him). I fought with this French aristocrat, and I wept with him. I thus came to love him for the unique character that he truly was.

During this brief but intense period, Guillaume came to life in my mind. Then, once I “felt” Guillaume (there is no other way to accurately describe what must happen -- willing a character into being simply does not work) – once he became his own character, or “materialized into being,” I had to massively overhaul all of the scenes in Book Three that involved him. Those original scenes were invalidated by the “real” Guillaume. I also revised all previous scenes with Guillaume in Book One and re-wrote the scenes with and narration regarding this French aristocrat in Book 4. Without a laptop, I could not have created this novel within the space of three years!

The changes were vast and crucial improvements within a character who had been less than palpable. The early Guillaume was more a conceptual reality than a physical sensibility. I’d described him well enough, but the description did not “move” because the character described did not have “presence,” that magnifying force which would draw the reader more and more into the plot. Guillaume became a “person” to me, and thus to the reader, once I’d lit him in the proper lighting; once I’d grasped his probability of action and thought.

Within a novel, thought and speech (dialogue) are experienced by the reader as somewhat equivalent to action in terms of dynamic force: each is felt as an “event,” a “happening”. Thought and dialogue each show (sometimes unexpected) potential for action. In life, thinking and, above all, talking, and chattering, and chirping, talking, and even more talking (words words words) are chronically used as substitutes for action. It is even possible that some people equate them! I’ve observed the actions of some individuals and have asked, “What was he thinking? Was he thinking?”

I fully believed that Reader would fall in love with Guillaume all over again, if she’d just give him another chance! But there were no second chances for Guillaume where Reader was concerned. A powerful and final combustion had taken place between them. To this day, she is still upset with him. I marched forward all alone with Guillaume, the flawed but now-immensely improved main character. I was duty-bound to move him toward his fate, and far away from Reader who, in parting from the man, gave me a few choice suggestions to relay to Camille on how to deal with this French aristocrat!

I remain forever indebted to Reader for what I told her was “a visceral response to the early Guillaume.” I told her that THE DAWN would not be the epic it is without that response. I doubt that she will ever like Guillaume, given her previous experience with him. She might still be a little in love with him, which is to say hopelessly enamored!

After I’d completed final edits, and handed the completed novel to the proofreader, Reader told me that she has brave new respect for a novelist: “You truly do live the thing. It becomes a part of you.”

I do live the thing, but it does not become a part of me. It’s the only time that Reader got something backward: the thing was already a part of me; I was merely trying to get it out!

And then THE DAWN proved too large to upload onto smashwords. The anticipated online publication began on Labor Day weekend of 2012. (I do recall finishing the draft on Labor Day weekend of 2010, so “Labor Day” and THE DAWN have what some might call “history” together.) On that typically sweltering morning of that Labor Day weekend 2012, I typically got up late and then encountered Dear Husband at the kitchen table. There he sat with laptop, huge glass of iced tea, and a grimace. For two hours he’d been trying to upload my precious oeuvre.

“It’s just too big,” he said.

I took a pen (knife) to the list of books that comprised the entire work. Calmly and, with a slow sigh, I drew a very straight, horizontal line between what became the books of Volume I and the books of Volume II. THE DAWN thereafter became a published e-book. And Volume II immediately began to outsell Volume I, something that I definitely did not plan and do not find appealing or even amusing.

Dear Husband thinks that the opening scenes of Book 5, “with the birds” and “Camille protecting her egg” are very powerful and the reader gets drawn in, a bit more than by the mystery of the beginning of this epic. Of course, if one enters a drama right in the middle, that sort of thing is bound to happen, but Writer did put a lot of time and effort into building the story to the so-called middle!

Dear Daughter, a classics scholar, believes that the two-volume arrangement makes the work look like the classic that it is. Dear Son, a civil engineer, wanted the logical reason for Volume II to be outselling Volume I by an almost 2-1 margin; it did not make any sense to him. To this day, I don’t have a logical reason, at least not one that makes any sense. I don’t believe that Guillaume would either, but perhaps one need not make any sense out of it. (I am reminded of Nabokov’s “Do the senses make sense?”)

My advice therefore for any writer who is uneasy or uncertain about the “reality” of a character is to proceed with due caution, employ the treasured services of a trusted “reader,” and unflinchingly “flesh out” the character before even beginning the story. By “flesh out,” I mean to write lists of traits, habits, likes, dislikes, clothing preferences, verbalisms, whatever it takes to make the character get up off of the page and become “real.”

You must be able to envision your character in motion: walking through a room, eating a meal, sitting down at a table, looking up at the sky, tossing a ball into the air and catching it, smiling softly as he watches the flutter of leaves on the tree before his very eyes. The more action that you can picture your character doing, the more that he or she will come to life for you, and then, ultimately, for your reader. As W. Somerset Maugham said, “You can never know enough about your characters.”

Character is derived from action, not from description, although description is a valuable tool. Here again, description must be linked to action, or it is a drag on the advance of the action. Reader always wanted the character descriptions front-loaded, something that I do not do, so she was somewhat stymied without the cataloguing and categorizing approach to character presentation. (I strenuously avoid the overload of static detail à la Honoré de Balzac, a true Frenchman in his love of the categorical.) Nonetheless, the physical description of Guillaume, no matter where it was placed or how it was presented, did not improve the attitude of Reader toward this Frenchman! She had strong feelings about him, which was a good thing; but those feelings were all going in the wrong direction!

After the character has been “fleshed out” and is moving in your mind as a living, breathing person, you must then submit this character to his or her fate. This final step is the most difficult for any writer, and yet even fictional characters have the right to self-determination. Guillaume de Vallon was one fictional character who did indeed determine his own self!


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