What’s the most important thing to you about a book? For me, it’s the characters. If the characters are interesting, and believable, I can forgive a lot of flaws with the plot. But if the characters don’t grab me then the best plot in the world isn’t going to hold my attention through a book.
But maybe that’s just me.
I was a huge Stephen King fan when I was growing up. I cried when Larry and Glenn died in The Stand. I mean cried. I felt like I’d lost two of my best friends. There have been times when I’ve dreaded the end of books because I wouldn’t be able to visit with certain characters anymore.
When I first started writing it was just on a whim. The internet was a very new thing back then – yeah, I know, I’m feeling old now, too. I had just gotten my first PC; an AT&T 6300. Wait, I king of lie, that was my first PC but it wasn’t my first computer. My first computer was a Radio Shack TRS80. I had that when I was in high school and I took it to college with me. It was a huge, clunky keyboard with no capacity for memory or anything. There were these cartridges that looked kind of like small 8-track tapes called “Program Packs” and you inserted them into this big clunky keyboard and they ran one program at a time. I had a word processing program and a couple of games. I had to use an old 13″ black and white TV as a monitor, though it would work with just about any TV. It attached with wires to the little rabbit-ear connectors. I used to type up other students’ papers on it. I had a big, heavy dot matrix printer that went along with the big clunky keyboard. No one else in my dorm had a computer at all.
Anyway, back to the AT&T 6300 – it was actually my roommate’s computer and he paid like three grand for it but never used it. I don’t think he even knew how to turn it on. I worked in in the computer room at a manufacturing company back then and we had these huge mid-range mainframes like the IBM System 38 that took up the whole room and used reel to reel vacuum tape drives for backups. So, I knew how to use a computer, but not how to use a PC. I had no idea what a mouse was, and it was a different language to operate it. Windows wasn’t really a “thing” yet. But we had something called a DOS Shell that we used. I figured out how to use the PC and pretty much took it over.
Back then (I sound sooooo old now) we used to get things in the mail like floppy disks for something new and amazing – access to the internet. The first one I tried was Prodigy. I connected the computer to the phone jack and installed Prodigy and it took like twenty minutes to establish a connection and sign in. But it was incredible. I wasn’t sure what all I was connecting to but man, it was a rush!
Prodigy soon gave way to AOL and that was much easier for the common mope to navigate so I switched over. Yes, we had to pay to get online. Not only did you have to pay your phone bill, but you had to pay an internet service provider. What were those old modem speeds? 1200 baud? 2400 baud? And remember the sounds that used to come out of the modems? And being online meant that you couldn’t use the phone for anything else, so anyone calling you was getting a busy signal. If you were really cool you might have call waiting or voicemail.
Once I was on AOL I started cruising the internet, searching on all my favorite things and finding chat rooms and forums where I could talk for hours with complete strangers across the country – you know, as opposed to taking a walk in the fresh air and meeting some of my actual neighbors. Anyway, I found some chat rooms and forums about some of my favorite TV shows and started chatting with fellow fans and before you know it – welcome to the Wild World of Fandom. It was a natural transition (if anything is truly natural about fandom) into fan fiction. And from there into writing original works. Up until then I hadn’t even really thought about writing. That was in the mid to late 1990s and I’m actually still close with a bunch of people I met in those “Yahoo Groups”. I gained confidence there, and grew as a writer. Most of all, I fell in love with characters.
When I sit down to write a book it isn’t because I’ve had this great idea for a story. It’s always a character that forms in my head first and it’s almost like becoming pregnant. The character forms slowly over a period of time and their story grows along with them. The stories evolve from the birth of the characters. Once they’ve given birth they become like very real and very persistent people who reveal their stories to you at the most inconvenient times possible, like when you’re at work or driving or pretty much anywhere that you just can’t stop and write stuff down.
It’s actually a little like having a nervous breakdown.
Yes. Writing is actually like having a nervous breakdown.
Sometimes. Not always. More often than not.
So, after the writing of the story starts I always get an idea of where it’s going. And sometimes I even dare to project in my own mind where the story will wind up and what the ending will be. And that’s where I get into trouble. Because it really isn’t MY story. It’s theirs. And when I try to force a character into doing something that fits MY idea of where the story is going, I find myself facing a huge roadblock because those characters dig their heels in and refuse to cooperate. I once had a character who was supposed to only be in the first half of one book and then she was supposed to die. She refused. I’m not kidding. She wouldn’t die. She was still around for the third sequel.
I’ve written stories with characters who readers hated. Loathed. Despised. But believed. And isn’t that really what a writer is aiming for? Bringing across, channeling characters that people like, love or hate but believe because to the reader they become real?
That’s all I’ve ever wanted out of writing. To me the characters are very real and I live with them every day. To have them manifest themselves to the reader is a magic I can’t even describe.
Writing, for me, is all about the characters.