Why are my peripheral characters so much easier to write?

My writing over the last couple of weeks could not be more schizophrenic.  One day I’m on fire, the next day I’m frozen in ice.  First I’m barely able to type the words as quickly as they are coming to me, then you could sail ships through the gaps in between the words that come to me.

So, am I up or down?  Manic or Depressed?  Today, I’m up.  I’ve just written a scene which flowed from the reservoir of my brain like a rain-fed stream, full of (what I imagine must be) crackling dialogue, crisp, direct prose, and even the delicate flourish of metaphor coloring the pages.  Difficult to write good metaphors on the fly while I’m drafting, I’ve found.  Some days it just doesn’t happen, and I certainly don’t like to force it.  It bogs me down.  Those days I leave lots of notes to Future Me: FIND SOME BETTER COMPARISONS or THIS IS LIKE SOMETHING BUT I DON’T KNOW WHAT YET, FIX IT.  None of those notes today or yesterday, though.

A good writing session, then.  But still one that leaves me a little flummoxed, because it’s a scene taking place entirely between secondary characters.  Not leading roles.  Not even supporting actors, really.  These are characters that only appear a couple of times in the book, and writing them is as easy as swinging a cat in my house and hitting a toddler toy (which is to say, it basically happens on its own without interference from me multiple times on the daily).  And it makes me fargoing ANGRY.  These guys are bit parts.  Icing on the cake.  Curlicues on the calligraphy.  They’re not, by any stretch of the imagination, the main players.  Sure, they have bearing on the main action of the story, but they are by their nature peripheral.  They’re not who I have spent my time with.  They’re not who my audience will spend their time with.  So why are they so goldfingered easy to write?

Maybe it’s because the stakes are low for these characters.  Well, not for the characters themselves — obviously they have their own concerns in the storyline as it pertains to them — but rather for myself as storyteller, my particular stakes in regard to these characters are low.  Low stakes means low pressure.  Low pressure means I can just let it happen, like an old guy squeezing out a few drops after a prostate exam.  I don’t have to worry about what repercussions their interaction will have on the plot, because I’ve already decided that, and they can’t affect the plot very much in their own right anyway… kind of like a fridge magnet stuck to the side of the space shuttle wouldn’t alter its trajectory too much (yeah, I know the space shuttles are defunct now, I’m just… jeez, okay?  Leave me alone.).  I can just set these guys alone in a room, wind them up like clockwork toys, and let them do what they do.

What’s frustrating is not that these peripheral characters have been so easy to write, these last few days.  The frustrating part is how much I’ve been struggling with my main cast lately.  It feels like, even on my good days, the strings of authorial intent are clearly visible tugging on their puppet-like hands and mouths.  On my bad days, it’s more like I’m shoving cardboard standees around a stage and taking still photographs, trying to make it look like it all fits together when it looks like a bad diorama from the third grade.  Hackneyed.  Forced.  Boring.  Awful!  You would think that my main characters would be the ones I’m in love with, the ones that spring fully-formed from my head like Venus and go out into the world creating wild plot devices and surprise twists.  And to be fair, they’ve done their share of that.  But I think I’m growing just a little bit weary of them.  I guess it’s not terribly surprising that I should do that; after all, I’ve been spending the better part of one thousand words a day, five days a week, with them for oh, going on four months now.  Still, my main characters should be the ones I love, right?  The ones I can’t wait to write for, the ones that just boil over when I put them on the page?

I’m just pontificating, here, but maybe I need to think of my main characters a little bit more in the way that I think about these bit parts; just step back off of them a little, loosen the reins, and allow them to do a bit of story-building on their own.  It feels like, as I get close to the end, I feel myself steering them more and more toward the ending I have in mind, which takes away their agency and, as a result, ends up being just really crappy storytelling.  Problem is, here at the end, there is very little story-building left to do, which means I’m going to have to go back and tear the engine out of this thing and let them do their story-building back in the middle where things started to go all squidgy, which is going to mean more rewriting and…

Hey, Future Me, are you reading this?  I’M SORRY.  I’M SO SORRY. But your job is getting bigger every day.  Good news is, the draft is almost finished, which means you get to start your job soon.  We’ve got your office all ready, and a case of bourbon to help you deal with it.  You’re going to need it.  Wait, where are you running off to?  Come back!  WE CAN’T HIRE SOMEBODY ELSE TO okay he’s gone.  Sharknado.  Anybody else feel like editing this first draft for me?  I just totally flaked on myself.  Or rather, my future self flaked on me.  Or rather rather, my future self will be flaking on me by the time I…

God, make it stop.  I’m at 95% now.  I can make it.  I might burst into flames as I cross the finish line, but I can make it.

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About Pavowski

I am a teacher, runner, father, and husband. I am an author-in-progress. I know just enough about a lot of things to get me into a lot of trouble. View all posts by Pavowski

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