I love writing novels.
The process of piecing together a grand overarching plot and weaving together the plot threads of different characters in a compelling story is one of the most rewarding projects that I’ve found in life. I love writing novels, but I HATE it when one of my characters ends up dying before they’re supposed to.
Two days ago, a minor character named Chock took a poisoned crossbow bolt to the shoulder for one of my major characters. Yes, I am grateful that he stepped in the way so that my major character can live to fight another day, but at the same time, I didn’t mean for him to die. He had a wife and two children that I hadn’t met yet. They came into the story for the first time just moments before he died, and he was too far gone at that point to properly say goodbye. I admire his selflessness, and I’m glad that he saved the life of one of my major characters. But I had intended for him to live happily for another forty years.
Nathan, you talk about him like he was a real person. And you’re the author! You have command of that all-powerful “delete” key, so can’t you just rewrite the scene so that Chock doesn’t die?
If only it were so simple.
Back in my senior year of high school, I participated in NaNoWriMo for my first time. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is an organization that basically helps you keep track of your novel word count and progress over the course of November. You have 30 days to write a 50,000 word novel (which translates to roughly 180 pages). For my first NaNoWriMo novel, I decided to write a historical fiction piece: Blood of the Samurai, set in 1860s Japan after the U.S. Commodore Perry basically forced the Tokugawa Shogunate to modernize, disbanding the Samurai Order in the process. Many Samurai tried to defend the nation’s traditional ways in a series of rebellions that ended most famously with Saigo’s Rebellion in 1877. My novel tells the fictional story of one of the earliest of these rebellions.
All that as background, there was one scene in Blood of the Samurai where the protagonist, Sanada Daisuke, is talking with a minor character named Tsukahara. Over the course of the conversation, Tsukahara started hinting at some sort of elaborate backstory that he had. The problem? I, the author, had no idea what he was talking about.
So I took him aside, sat him down, and said, “Dude, what are you doing? You aren’t supposed to be significant!” To which he quickly replied, “Well, I’m significant now. Deal with it.”
My finger hovered over the delete key for quite some time. Then, slowly, it occurred to me: I don’t know what his story is. And the only way I can find out? Continuing to write. For the first time, I became a spectator in the story, not a dictator.
After that month, I returned to the fantasy trilogy that I am still working on. I was writing the second book at the time, and taking after Tsukahara, the majority of my characters started doing things without my permission. Insofar as I was concerned, my characters had developed free will. And it had drastic consequences.
My protagonists started really paying attention to the people around them, and my minor characters started pulling their own weight and making decisions that deeply impacted the story. And yes, it wasn’t long before one fairly significant character was killed prematurely.
After he died, I just stared at the computer screen in shock. What had just happened? He wasn’t supposed to die.
These moments, which have grown increasingly frequent for me as a writer, are also quite painful. Even if it’s a minor character, I somehow grow very attached to that character right before he or she dies. Just as painful, or perhaps even more so, are the times when characters choose to hurt other characters – emotionally, physically, whatever – instead of trying to find another solution.
To go a step farther, this phenomenon of fictional free will has helped me gain perspective. If the decisions of my fictional characters affect me so strongly, how much more so do the decisions of seven and a half billion people affect God?
But the story doesn’t end here.
Because when fictional characters – or real people in our world – have free will, it is true that many of them will choose to hurt others, for whatever reason. Often overlooked, but equally important, is the other side of the coin. As surely as there will always be broken people making broken decisions, there will always be broken people rising to the occasion, taking a stand, rising against impossible odds to make the world a better place. Making a decision that, in a grand or in a seemingly insignificant way, makes their world a better place.
The deaths, the broken decisions, the senseless bickering will never end. But even if these scenes – these decisions – are far more frequent, there is still hope. And there always will be. These moments, when I expect the worst and a character surprises me and changes their world for the better?
These are the moments I write for.