Mon
Jun 22 2009 3:23pm

Telling Stories With Character

There are moments in my writing life that I can distinctly remember for their sublime weirdness. The first time a character in a piece I was working on came to me in a dream, for example. Benny Bueno, in “The Rose Egg” (which was eventually published in Postscripts issue one) had some things to say to me about the story. Or the first time a character took over the page and changed the story from what I intended. That would be Peter João Fallworth, in “Our Lady of American Sorrows,” who simply refused to do what I wanted him to do with a captured weapon, until I stopped trying, stared at the screen, and said, “Fine, smart guy, what are you going to do now?” Whereupon he told me.

When I talk about this stuff, I suspect I sound crazy. Possibly I am, at some level. I think most writers eventually enter into a relationship with their story and characters that instantiates an inner reality with a hallucinatory strength and consistency.

So it is now as I work on Endurance. This is Green’s second book-length outing, after the eponyous novel Green. She began as a character study, more or less, in the short story “Green” (originally appearing in Aeon 5). In the short story, I barely knew her. I was uncovering the complexities of a very strange and difficult young woman. Like a paleontologist with a cracked tooth and two vertebrae, I was adducing a creature out of whole cloth.

Then I wrote Green. This required a great deal more discovery. I had to dig up all the bones, inhabit the character, let her inhabit me. They don’t generally come to me in my dreams any more, or speak sharply to me from the other side of the keyboard, as Benny and Peter did in their time. More like a dialog with a hidden friend, just past the edge of hearing and around the corner.

But in writing Green I did grow very deeply into the character of Green, and became rather fond of her. I saw the world as she did, and wrote it accordingly. Her life is difficult, challenged, horridly constrained and strangely liberated at the same time. I knew her. But this was her first book, and she was pushed along both by events and by me, her secret puppetmaster.

Endurance is a rather different experience. I have learned more about Green from the outside. Some of that is from reviews and reader reactions. Other parts of it are from writing external material, such as the novelette “Coming for Green” which is told from the point of view of the Blade aspirant Samma. I’ve realized what a strange human being Green is, how much she frightens the people around her—even those who love her—and how profoundly Green misunderstands herself.

Yet she is driving Endurance in a way that she did not drive Green. This book has a definite pace and pattern to it. I laid down the plot in the outline. I sit at the keyboard a minimum of two hours every day—I managed almost 40,000 words of first draft in my initial week’s effort. But she’s telling the story. And so I continue to be surprised, in ways that are interesting and delightful to me.

Of course I know perfectly well that all of this is compartmentalization in my writer’s mind, that I’m not receiving messages from an imaginary friend I happened to make up. Of course I know that I control this prose, I don’t channel it, and that Green is no more real than Gully Foyle or Gilgamesh. But she’s no less real, either, and the story sure as hell is coming from somewhere. I think the process of writing this novel will be another of those experiences that will stay with me for a long time to come.


Jay Lake is the author of the author of Mainspring and Escapement, and winner of the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His latest novel Green is available now from Tor Books.

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