Sunday, June 3, 2018

Breakfast with Dante: A Lesson in Letting Your Characters Lead the Way

I'm going to let you in on a secret:

When I started writing Binding Dante Lovelace, I didn't know Mr. Lovelace very well at all.

I sat down to really start working on the book on a bright and sunny January 1st. It was 2017, a year that would end up quite tragic for me personally. There was death and strife to come, but I didn't know it yet. I had a cup of Earl Gray and the Sherlock Holmes soundtrack, and I was determined to get to know this character. While I'd held many conversations with Dante in my mind, there's nothing quite like writing a character to understand them.

That's not to say I hadn't written him at all before--he had a supporting role in The Last Temptations of Iago Wick. However, all I really knew was:

  1. Dante Lovelace is a catastrophe artist, a demon who creates mayhem on Earth in order to corrupt and claim the souls of humans for Hell.
  2. He is Iago Wick's more level-headed partner/romantic interest.
  3. He collects taxidermy and death-related artifacts to decorate his house at 13 Darke Street and dresses completely in black.

We had a long way to go.

When I first started writing Dante in the first draft of Last Temptations, I had something very different in my head. A tall, dark, and debonair sort of demon who relished in the misery he caused and saw it as as much of an art as Iago saw his temptation of humans. There are shades of this in the first book, to be sure. Think Jason Isaacs. Think a villain you know is bad, but you still kinda love him.

And Dante Lovelace, quite frankly, looked me in the eye and said, "That's not me."

Well, I thought. Then, who are you?

I let him take the wheel more than I had ever done with a character before. I just had this sense that he knew better than I did.

After all, writers don't create characters, we just allow them to come out to play.

So, I began a habit that I still maintain: I promised to work on the manuscript every single day at 5:00 AM. My mind was clearer then, more open to ideas. And just as I did on January 1st, I would sit with a cup of tea (frequently Earl Gray) and just write. While I still had an outline, this book was definitely the most "pantsed" of all the first drafts I ever wrote. I just let the words and the ideas come. Nothing was too strange, nothing was too silly. Over tea and breakfast every morning, I let Dante show me his story.

He surprised me right off the bat in Binding Dante Lovelace when he showed me remorse. He showed me regret. He did not enjoy his work for Hell, not nearly as much as he said he did in the company of other demons. And in doing this, he suddenly seemed trapped, victimized and somewhat vulnerable. He was sympathetic.

More than sympathetic! He was nice. He liked cats and baking and writing love letters by candlelight! He showed me a yearning for something more, for a life beyond what Hell wanted for him. In a way, he told me, he was under Hell's control. He destroyed because they forced him to, and quite frankly, he was growing tired of it.

In his relationship with Iago Wick, he proved to be loyal and passionate. He worried about his lover when they were apart. He wanted more than love with Iago, he wanted a life with him.

Very simply, Dante Lovelace was very alive for a creature so focused on death.

The lesson is: shut up and let your characters talk! I had a vision in my head of what Dante Lovelace was supposed to be, but that wasn't who he truly was. Only when I let him run the show did I realize the tender-hearted character I was writing for. I let his every move and every word come naturally, and what's more, I fell head-over-heels in love with him.

I think writers and creators often get an idea in their head of what a character should be based on popular tropes or other characters. You might be writing a vampire and think, "People like Lestat! I'm going to write the next Lestat."

Don't let someone else's work or expectations hang you up--let your character lead the way, organically.

To go off on a bit of a tangent: this is why I'm not a fan of those big 1000-question character questionnaires. When you fill one of those out, you're forced (on the spot) to come up with your character's life. What's his favorite color? What's a traumatic event from his childhood? What does he dream about? Boom, boom, boom!

Your characters are alive. You wouldn't learn these things about a new acquaintance in rapid succession. Why should you learn them about your character that way? It's not organic, and it's not your character talking. You're deciding those things for your character, rather than them showing you.

As I said, I still get up at 5:00 AM every day to write. The first draft of the third book in The Lovelace & Wick Series is about 85% of the way to completion. It's a doozy, but it features both Lovelace and Wick equally in the main roles. Those demon husbands work quite well together, and as long as they're running the show, I'm happy to tag along.


Binding Dante Lovelace is available for purchase at Amazon.

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