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Alyssa Day | When Characters Run Wild

November 5, 2007

Alyssa DayHere’s a little secret that not a lot of non-writers realize: Authors are not always in control of their characters. Some of us are rarely in control, which makes for the occasional difficult conversation with our editors. For example:

Me: Um, about that synopsis. It doesn’t actually bear any resemblance to the finished book. You’re good with that, right?

Editor: (long-suffering sigh) Well, I’m kind of used to that with you . . .

I can’t help it. It’s not like I consciously set out to drive my poor editor nuts. It’s just that I’m happily writing along, following my lovely plotted-out outline (yes, I plot, I love to plot, I outline, I describe scenes, sometimes I even include snippets of what I think at the time is wickedly brilliant dialogue), and then when I start to write . . .

Most of it ends up in the recycling bin.

When I was writing ATLANTIS AWAKENING (coming to stores near you November 6th!), I had an especially tough time with this. You see, I fell victim to one of the other problems that can strike unsuspecting authors, usually with no warning: The “I know too much about my characters” syndrome.

My hero, the Lord Vengeance, is one of the fiercest warriors in the history of the lost continent of Atlantis. He’s also dealing with many very deeply painful emotional issues, not the least of which is that his soon-to-be sister-in-law, a woman he’s grown to care deeply for, may lose the baby she’s carrying. The baby is Ven’s brother’s first child and heir to the throne.

In the early draft of the beginning of the book, I had envisioned Ven reacting to a lot of this worry in a certain way. But around page 100 or so, I got stuck. I just couldn’t write. I knew something was wrong and I couldn’t figure out what.

Finally, FINALLY, Ven walked up and smacked me “upside the head” as my Grandma used to say.

Ven: What in the nine hells are you doing to me?

Me: What are you talking about? Also, you’re a fictional character, so back off.

Ven: I’m the toughest warrior in Atlantis. I’m the leader of the Seven. I have kicked vampire and shapeshifter ass for CENTURIES. But on these pages, I’m a damn whiny baby. Are you freaking kidding me?

Me: Um . . . you’re dealing with all that stress! Riley and the baby! Conlan! The thought of perhaps being forced to take over as high prince!

Ven (disgusted): I’m not a girl. I’m not going to sit around and talk about my FEELINGS with the rest of the warriors while we demolish vamps in a back alley. Freaking whiny baby. Cut it out or I’m going on strike and walking out of this book.

Me: Fine. Fine. You can’t walk out of this book – you’re the HERO! You have to meet Erin and fall in love . . .

Ven: Yeah. And about that . . . I’m not really the hero type. Why don’t you make somebody else fall in love?

Me: Shut up, or I’ll make you sit around with Denal and Justice braiding each other’s hair.

As he snarled at me and stalked off, I realized that he was completely right. Not about not being a hero – Ven is one of the most heroic characters I’ve ever written, in spite of not seeing himself that way. But about the way I was portraying his struggle to deal with the emotional issues in his life. I knew too much about what he was facing, but I wasn’t being realistic in how he would deal with it all.

When I scaled back on my empathy for him and fell back into his true voice, the book flowed like Atlantean ale in the palace dining hall. The experience of breaking through my writer’s block, although painful to go through, taught me a lesson about my own process: I need to plot and outline and plan, because I love working my way through options and ideas and twists and turns. But then, I need to set it all aside and write, letting the characters tell me their stories in their own voices.

That’s when the magic happens – when I let the characters run wild.

Speaking of wild, in honor of tomorrow’s release of ATLANTIS AWAKENING and my birthday on the 9th, enter my contest and tell me something wild you’ve done on a birthday (keep it at least to PG-13, please!) and I’ll randomly pick two entries to win an autographed copy of ATLANTIS RISING, the first book in the Warriors of Poseidon series. And please visit me at for updates on all things Warrior!


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