a character-building experience

Was talking to the wise and experienced M. this morning when she mentioned that she’d started reading LORD OF BONES (for those of you just joining us, LOB is my new book that came out a few days ago) and said some very nice things about the characters, that they’re engaging and complex enough to warrant more books about them, etc. Something like that. And I said quite truthfully that I feel proud of the character work in that book — that in my novels to date (unpublished as well as published) LOB for me represents a breakthrough in my ability to get deep beneath the skin of my fiction-people and how they relate to one another.

The best is when something emerges through that process that takes you by surprise. I can’t say how or why this happens — I’m not someone who likes to talk about how the characters “take on a life of their own” — it’s my belief that they take on the life that you give them, and if you’re doing your job it’s such a complex and multilayered life that your own conscious mind isn’t privy to all of it; some of it takes place in what I like to think of as the ‘undermind’, where stuff simmers away night and day and you have to let that process happen and feed it however you can and stay open to the signals it sends you when it finally decides (or deigns) to do so.

This is the discovery part of writing a novel, and it is extremely cool. It is when you put pen to paper — or, to be more nitpick-accurate, fingers to keyboard — and something happens that goes beyond what you wrote in your outline back when the story was still somewhat embryonic.

My demon character Del is an example of this. He pretty much came out of nowhere — springing fully-formed from the undermind — someone who was supposed to be little more than a colorful plot device in my first novel BLOODANGEL and now has a complete storyline forming round him that takes him through LORD OF BONES and beyond.

Another example turned out to be the evolving relationship between Kai and Ramsey in LORD OF BONES. I wrote a scene less than halfway through the novel involving just the two of them, and what emerged beyond the narrative information I needed to convey and the affection I already knew existed between them was something much more roughly edged. Something that cut to the nature of both their characters — Kai’s tendency to be arrogant and secretive and so single-minded as to be a bit oblivious and Ramsey’s growing sense of rivalry and suspicion as well as a jealousy he’s not quite ready to admit to. That one scene set off a few unanticipated shockwaves that not only reverberate through the climax of LOB but come into play in a very major way in the sequel that I’m working on now.

In any case, I was talking about this a little bit with M. — although not nearly in such detailed terms, more about how I took a lot of care to steer one character away from the cliched idea I felt he was in danger of becoming — when M. said suddenly, “Also you’re very knowledgable about men now,” or at least more so than when I wrote BLOODANGEL (and was still in my twenties).

And pardon my blatant vanity, but I did enjoy the sound of that. Knowledgable about men. Here’s hoping it’s true. More than a little of that new knowledge feels hard-won, of course, but then the best kinds of knowledge often are.

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