The Empty Page

I hate beginnings. No, I loathe them. All the things the story has to say, crowding at the bottleneck of Chapter One. How does a person make sense out of such unruly chaos?

Oh, and don’t get me started on the characters. Fledglings, so dear and intricate to me, but blank slates to the readers. With all the complexity of human beings, how to show a character, fit her into her niche? How can she start out feeling like herself if you have to introduce her first?

The only way I can even begin to imagine the undertaking is through careful organization. I am such a plotter. Everything neatly constructed beforehand, to avoid traffic accidents and suchlike. For pantsers I have a sense of awe, edged with jealousy and maybe just a hint of disbelief. How in the name of all things good and green do you do it? Unwritten stories are monstrosities. Pantsing is like tweaking a dragon on the nose and then running for your very life, laughing as you go. They laugh, I swear. They are insane. (That, and a little bit magnificent.)

Anyhow, like I was saying, I need careful organization. I need to lay out exactly what I need the reader to know. And then I need to take my protagonist and throw myself inside her head with reckless abandon.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about characters, it’s that “setting out” to show their personality usually ends in disaster. I think I touched on this in Drowning in Roses and Moonlight. You really have to bury yourself inside a character’s head in order to portray her properly. That’s the only way she can breathe. Too much control and she turns into a puppet.

I remember reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych in highschool, and this was something that struck me about his characters. His descriptions were so beautiful and spot-on, and his studies of human nature truly interesting, but for all that, they were nothing but that to me: studies. I don’t mean to insult such a prominent and well-loved author, but I can’t have been the only person who felt that his characters were being controlled by an outside force. Come to think of it, that may have been what he intended. In which case, he did a brilliant job, but it’s not a writing goal that I share, satirical or otherwise.

In order to form beginnings, I have to craft a delicate balance of absolute control and absolute lack of it. Direct the characters, but let them breathe as freely as any human being. It’s an interesting dance, and part of the execution of it is keeping up with the craziness without showing how much it freaks you out. You have to lose yourself in the rhythm, just like improvising jazz.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. L. Palmer
    Nov 30, 2012 @ 16:55:56

    I’ve rewritten the beginning of my book countless times. When I finally found the right tone and introduction to the main characters, everything else has fallen into place. I try to have a balance of plotting and ‘pantsing’. I have an outline of the plot, but leave enough wiggle room for characters to tell me who they are and whether they really would do those things. Sometimes, my characters take my plot and twist it into another direction.


    • Sarah
      Nov 30, 2012 @ 18:19:17

      For me, I completed the middle part of the book and am now getting a sense of how the beginning and the ending should be. I know exactly what you mean about characters running with the plot! It makes the process so much fun; I love it when my own story surprises me


  2. Subhabrata Dasgupta
    Dec 01, 2012 @ 21:48:04

    Thanks for stopping by my blog.
    This post was very helpful. The idea is to give up control. Too much control will stifle the character. True a character is born out of our own mind , they are but a figment of our imagination.
    However, as the story unfolds, slowly, the character can be allowed to live it’s own life, make it’s own choices, and carve out it’s own niche.


    • Sarah
      Dec 01, 2012 @ 22:06:18

      Watching a character come to life is one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s such an interesting existance–completely a figment of the imagination, and yet feeling so alive.


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