When I realised the character in my short story, ‘Mitigating Circumstances’ was a psychopath, I was so relieved because I hadn’t planned it but it worked perfectly.
You see I’d started the story in a bad mood—well, let me be honest; I was in a furious funk with a teacher at my kid’s school. I’d said to my husband, ‘I’m putting her in a story and I’m gonna kill her and it’s gonna be messy.’ Well it’s my rules, and I can kill whom I like in a story, right?
So, I started this story, with very little thought except for the two opening lines, “It didn’t have to end this way. In fact, it didn’t need to go down the path it took.” Then, I wrote like a demon for the next four hours, with a break for things like clothes washing, cleaning, picking the kids up from school, and dinner. By 8pm that night, the story was finished and, as I typed the last line, I thought two things, I’m no longer angry and this is the best thing I’ve ever written.
In the last paragraph, where we receive the twist in the final sentence—I always have a twist, you just can’t go to bed hungry—I looked over, in my mind, to one of the characters. He was a nine year old who had sat there quietly while all hell broke loose around him. I suddenly thought, amidst the action...I wonder what he is thinking.
A week later, another story came to me and I took off again. This time, I only had the title. But just like before, I wasn’t writing it, I was simply following the characters. At the climatic conclusion, I was as surprised as the lead character, as to her fate.
If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon in writing yet, then you may think I am crazy. But I’m not crazy. This is where the clever writer in you breaks away from you. It’s nothing personal. It’s just they can do the job a whole lot better than you could if you sat there and thought through everything you wanted to say. They’re the writer. You get to watch.
How do you do it? How do you get characters in your head to think for themselves? Well I have a few theories. I think you must find your own doorway. Stephen King has even suggested in a recent interview, that writers may even fall into a light state of hypnosis.
So, I would sit there, frustrated, straining at the boundaries of my ability, to leave my earthly surroundings and fly. I’d have moments, well sentences really, where I’d think, there it is; that’s what I mean. But it wasn’t something I could conjure consciously. I had noticed that the more I wrote, the more I felt my feet lifting from the ground, just a little.
Then came my story ‘Mitigating Circumstances’. My emotion as I began to write it, simply swept me away into the mind of this controlled but outrageously crazy woman. If you are a skier it felt like that feeling when you’ve had the perfect run, where your body turned and weighted and reweighted without you even thinking about it. Harmony with your body. This was harmony with my mind.
In a very good book I read years ago, ‘The Inner Game of Skiing’, the author discussed the idea of a Self One and Self Two. Self One, being the not very good skier who continually directs your body on how to turn, the ice to avoid, constantly points out how badly you ski and how easily you are going to fall. Whereas Self Two is the inner consciousness that knows exactly which muscles to move to make that perfect turn and could do it easily, if not for the constant yakking of Self One.
The trick, the author insisted is to distract Self One, so Self Two can take over and perform the microsecond, micro-minute muscle movements needed to ski well. The author suggested music as a way of distracting Self One, as he is just not a very good multi-tasker. So, in sending him off to listen, he vacates the seat for Self Two.
I think this is where we come unstuck in writing. Too many times, we sit down to write and, unbeknown to us, it is Self One, who shakes their hands with flourish and commences to type. Self Two is a much more modest and timid soul, who simply awaits his turn. A turn that sometimes never comes.
Our job as authors is to free that genius, who knows what to do and doesn’t have an ego about it. You can recognise if it’s Self One or Self Two gracing your chair. If the dialogue feels stilted, if the plot isn’t going anywhere, if you are not interested in what happens next, then the wrong guy is in the seat.