One-Off Characters, Or: Why Are You Yelling At Me?

I’ve settled into something of a pattern, point-of-view-wise, for the Central Corps books. I write my three main characters–Jessica, Greg, and Elena–and at least one POV character who’s destined to be around only for that book.

That’s the character who always ends up taking over.

In early drafts of REMNANTS OF TRUST, Raman Çelik did not have a POV at all: he was just the asshole that Elena used to work for, and ran away from as fast as she could. The original working story of REMNANTS focused on the Canberra disaster, and there was some other random reason bringing Galileo there that’s been lost to time. But Raman kept talking to me: whispering in my ear, nagging at my other characters, telling me he had something important to do in this story. The first scene I ever wrote from his POV is Chapter 9 in the book. (I put him with Bob, because I figured Bob could handle him.) I thought I’d hate writing him, but he was effortless.

Which is a good indicator, I’m finding.

I’ve got one extra POV character in Book 4 so far. (I may end up with two; I’ve got another character starting to get antsy on me.) She was there from the earliest thoughts, and then I tossed her, and now she’s back. The way I set up her character initially wasn’t working at all, but after I threw her out I found her coming back at me from another angle. She’s the same character she was, but her motivations are different. She is, dare I say it, interesting now, and the main reason for that is I understand why she’s there.

I’ve said before that I don’t generally recognize what I’m writing about until the book is finished. With the caveat that a book is of course going to mean something different to every reader, here’s what I wrote about in the other books:

THE COLD BETWEEN is about belonging

REMNANTS OF TRUST is about revenge

BREACH OF CONTAINMENT is about sacrifice

and I think CONDITION OF WAR is going to be about grief.

In THE COLD BETWEEN, Trey, who’s spent his whole life longing for home, is struggling to fit in now that he’s there. In REMNANTS, Raman hangs on to vengeance because he can’t accept that he couldn’t prevent what happened. In BREACH, Dallas has to choose between the unpleasant, unjust, but safe(r) status quo and standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves anymore.

In every case, the theme of the book is intimately tied with the one-offs.

I think these characters appear because, as the story evolves, I need an anchor that isn’t going to move forward to the next book. My regular crew needs to be able to act and react, to learn some small lessons and maybe miss the larger ones, to fuck everything up so I can write them another adventure. The one-off gives me a lens through which I can tell this story, a POV that grasps what’s important and acts on it.

It’s almost like they’re the adhesive, or (to haul food into it, because of course) the cake pan that shapes the contents. The story gets told, and it comes together, but there’s another piece to it that embraces the whole, that turns it into something finished, more elaborate. In the end, it’s this piece that holds the rest of it together, that makes it a cohesive story instead of just rambling travelogue.

When my one-offs come into focus, the story solidifies and becomes real. With CONDITION OF WAR, I started with my usual major milestones and wrote a tropical jungle of a rough draft. Currently I’m revising my way through the trees with a dull-edged machete and some insect repellent. And the more I hack, and the more I push forward, the more the one-off comes into focus, tells me what she needs, where she’s going, how she will be reacting.

Of course it’s interesting to see how different this process is from the process of my standalone. The standalone has two POVs (well, sort of three, but not really, and that’ll make sense once you read it) for very specific reasons, and it’s been a challenge to shape the story as it needs to be shaped without sprouting another POV to handle some of the larger themes. It’s felt fragile at times, and really quite difficult. But the nature of this book lends itself to the limits I’ve put on it. Like life, it raises a lot of existential questions, and like life, it settles almost none of them. It’s about very specific people in a very specific situation, and sometimes they screw up and sometimes they don’t. But writing it often feels like I’m mitering together an intricate piece of furniture: I have to be precise in ways I’m not used to being precise in drafts.

I’d say writing the Central books is easier, but it’s not, really. They’re structured differently. I communicate different things with them. That I’ve done it a few times doesn’t make it easier to do it again; in some ways it makes it harder, because I can look back and see what’s worked well and what hasn’t, but I can’t always quantify that in a way that helps creating anything new. And of course there’s the backstory to haul along with me. I love it–it gives the universe texture, and the characters so much more depth–but there’s a lot to keep track of. (Yes, I’m writing a wiki. No, it probably won’t be done this decade, or even this century.)

But every time, when I’ve given the story room to breathe, a character has come to me and told me they’re what I need to make the story work. And so far, they’ve always been right.

(Actually, now that I think of it, there are two other characters yelling at me in CONDITION OF WAR. Six is too many. No, I mean it. Really. One of you is going to have to shut up.)


One thought on “One-Off Characters, Or: Why Are You Yelling At Me?

  1. Well, I’m happy to learn the title of IV and also how you are architecting the frame of the volume. Any hints you’d care to give about the who, when, and what of the stand alone? Both of those in progress as well as a blog, a wiki, a newsletter, and possibly a private life? Certainly, you are “Superlative Woman”, able to exist on just minutes of sleep a night! Please, you keep on truckin, and I’ll keep on reading.

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