When I first dreamed up Swithin Eliot, the would-be protagonist of my then unfinished novella, he was entirely mine. I would set aside four hours a day, call him to my side, and go about the work of committing him to the page. All of this was done according to my vision.
Several months into the project, something happened: an imperceptible shift occurred and suddenly, I belonged to Swithin. From then on, he sat beside me at the office and whispered prose in my ear. He tugged on my sleeve during conversations, rested on my knee at meals, and followed me into the shower (shocking, I know). Swithin, unceasing and unshakable, refused me even a moment’s peace and although my own creation, it felt those days like he held the cards.
This character I once possessed had taken possession of me.
“The best subject,” well-known author, journalist and historian Richard Rhodes attests in his How To Write: Advice and Reflections, “is always the subject that possesses you once you find it, that you can’t stop thinking about,” but what to do when that subject becomes a disruption? What then? Can an overbearing subject with the power to dictate when you’re free to work and when you’re not really be considered a positive force?
Every writer with success in mind must ask him or herself, will I a.) take possession of this idea or b.) allow it to possess me? If you answered “a,” you’re on the right track to a successful literary exorcism. For the rest of you, here are three easy steps to take control of that pushy character.
Step 1: Have a good laugh.
We’re all familiar with the tortured artist persona. The angst-ridden, sulky-faced, lofty-speeched, beret wearing, cigarette smoking writer. Through film, television and, ironically enough, literature, this problematic image has gained a fair amount of clout. The good news is this doesn’t have to be you.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Writers who can’t see beyond the momentous significance of their project run the risk of forfeiting their power. “You,” they’re saying to their characters, “are much more important than I am.” But where would that character be without them? Trapped in the blank book of unwritten ideas, that’s where. Devotion and dedication are must-haves in this business and a sense of humor about yourself and your character will keep those qualities in check.
Trust me, breaking into a smile from time to time won’t rob you of author status. Go ahead, laugh. I promise I won’t tell.
Step 2: Kick that character out of your bed!
Swithin sure had a sense of humor. He liked to wake me up in the middle of the night, pull me from the comfort of my bed and sit me down in front of the computer to work on that unfinished chapter or compose a scene that he simply had to see realized. Funny, huh? It was behavior like this that made perfectly clear which one of us was working the puppet strings.
Take your time back. Dictate your own writing hours and set others aside for yourself.
Being a writer is hard, no doubt about it, but the freedom to make your own schedule is one of the many perks—not to mention wearing pajamas to work. As long as you’ve been productive during the day, there’s no reason for you to surrender your nights only to wake up an exhausted, non-functional writer in the morning.
The next time your character insists on putting a pen in your hand while you’re tying to catch a few zzz’s, push that pesky idea right out of your mind and your bed. You need your sleep.
Step 3: Call a truce.
Sure, your character taunts you, he challenges you, he steals your thoughts and claims your dreams—he pretty much stalks you—but the last thing you want to do is wage a war. Why do battle with your creativity?
Remember, harassing you is his job. It’s what he’s there for. It’s why you conjured him up in the first place, to push you to produce a piece of writing that you can really be proud of.
Before you suit up and jump in the ring, try to see things from your character’s perspective. Swithin wanted to get written just as much as I wanted to write him. Writing isn’t about beating your character into submission. It’s about bringing that internal life that you experience so vividly to the page. This will undoubtedly require a joint effort. Your character can inform you, if you’ll let him. You’ll both need to throw off your gloves, shake hands, and agree to cooperate.
Keep an open mind. Let your character have a say. So he wants to steal his antagonist’s car when you had planned for him a quiet evening. Give it a shot. He may be onto something. What have you got to lose?
Once you and your character realize that you’re on the same team, you can finally put your power struggles aside and get down to the very rewarding business of creating. Smile, rest, and write, as partners rather than opponents. Your sanity just may stick around to thank you for it.
Throes of Creation by Leonid Pasternak – Wikimedia Public Domain
Guest Author Bio
Justine Tal Goldberg
When Justine Tal Goldberg isn’t having it out with her characters, she’s helping writers of all experience levels to write more, write better, and accomplish their goals. She owns and operates WriteByNight, a writers’ service headquartered in New York, NY and serving writers worldwide.
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Blog / Website: http://www.justinetalgoldberg.com/