I think all authors go through what I typically go through when I am 90% done with a book: I have a draft, maybe even one that’s been revised a few times, but there is still plenty of layering to do. The characters must be made real and the plot a little more compelling, with my readers made to care about both. With my detailed outline in hand and a list of my characters and their individual traits nearby, I pore over what I have written and determine where I am missing depth in my manuscript.
It is always at this point, right before I begin the final draft process, but I begin to fear my characters are nothing but cartoons, that they have lost the struggle between word count, the need to move the plot forward and what’s left over to make my characters real. On top of that, when you’re writing a series as I am, you feel the need to move your recurring characters forward at least a little, too, so loyal readers, who love them as much as you do, can be rewarded. That’s all a lot of nuance to work into a plot that has to keep barreling forward at top speed.
This challenge was even more acute for me this time around as I worked on my new book, “Angel Along Us” because some of the characters, on the surface, definitely had the potential to slide into stereotype. This is often the case when you are working with characters that bring a lot of social baggage with them. In my case, I had a Catholic priest and a young female movie star, neither of which I wanted to end up being cardboard, and a handful of Hispanic characters who needed to be real without being caricatures. On top of it all, I had a recurring character who, in every book in which he has appeared, has bucked my plans for him and pretty much chosen his own path, often leading me to scratch my head about who exactly Adrian Calvano is and what he wants from me, his creator. Adrian was in fine form in this book, refusing to go along with my plot and choosing to act in unexpected ways. Clearly, he wanted something from me and I needed to figure out what.
It’s no wonder that my car felt crowded as I drove to the beach to begin my final push to complete this manuscript. Yes, I was the only one in the car, but I had all those characters riding in there with me and every one of them seemed to me to be in a most uncertain mood. I feared they might turn against me or, worse, give me the silent treatment, leaving me with nowhere to go.
I should have had a little more faith in them all. I should have had a little more faith in myself. I don’t know if, all along, my subconscious had plans for a more complex portrait of each character, or if there was something in the salty air and the unencumbered view of Bogue Sound that made my imagination sing. All I know is that, in three days time, every single character in this book showed me an unexpected side that, once revealed, seemed absolutely perfect for his or her skin. My Catholic priest became an enigma who carried a secret burden. My movie star turned out to be, perhaps, not as sweet as I had planned. An old butler, previously in the background, took a turn on center stage. Another character, a symbol of purity in this book, turned out to have a dark past indeed. And Calvano? Well, Calvano took a huge step forward in his life. Something missing in him was found. Even my poor, tortured protagonist discovered a purpose to his existence and glimpsed a promise of what was to come. He and I both enjoyed this rewarding of our faith. Best of all, as it turns out, my characters were meant to be together and there were reasons why they were in each other’s lives. All of these things were discovered in the quietness of solitude and the freedom of living undistracted with them for three days.
I think I should have had more faith in all of them as I worked on this book. I think I could have relaxed more while I was getting there and stressed less about if the book was going to come together. I think, perhaps, and I say this with deep gratitude, that there are advantages to getting older and finishing yet another book — advantages that the promise of being a brand-new writer can never match. Next time I reach that 80% points in my book, when I’m just not sure if it’s going to come together or not, I plan to have a little faith in my characters… and a little faith in me.