My daughter made a fuss earlier while eating her snacks. She said she was thirsty. I offered her water, but she insisted on juice. Juice and nothing but juice, which we didn't have right then. She was on the verge of a tantrum as we told her either to drink water or wait patiently until we could go out and buy juice, and she just kept insisting she had to have juice now.
Be reasonable, I thought, but didn't say. Reasonable was the word my parents had used for me when I was a child, so much I soon grew weary of the label. But it was a true enough description of me, in the sense that I had always been able to tame my feelings with reason.
My daughter's personality is entirely different, however. She was emotional and demanding from the day she was born, crying over the littlest thing, hard to comfort. With effort, we've been able to teach her to express her emotions in appropriate ways and to wait when necessary. But we can't rid her of her fussiness about the smallest things.
And irritated as I get with her, I know that I'll just have to accept this is the way she is. Just as when I write I have to let my characters and story develop naturally.
When the dialog sounds forced, the plot contrived, then the author is trying too hard to control the details. When I experience this, I know I have to just let the characters take the lead. I have to get to know them, and then my writing will flow. By giving them freedom to be themselves, I end up merely recording what they are doing, feeling, thinking. This happened to me when writing Alternative Alamat. I'm not saying I didn't engineer anything, but in this case, it was like setting up a blind date: Put a man and a woman who have chemistry together, give them enough time and their chemistry will just explode. But if they don't have chemistry absolutely nothing will happen, and you can't make it.
For my alternative alamat (myth), I developed a character to suit my powerful mythical queen. I worked out back stories for my main characters, so I knew them well. When I ran out of words to put in their mouths, I sent them to do something interesting together rather than forcing them to talk. And they did do very interesting things--during which flowed the dialog that was needed to move the plot along.
In writing the historical portion of what became my book Woman in a Frame, since it was for a class, I had a very definite outline in mind. And I followed it to the end. The trouble was, everone hated the way it ended. I was surprised. Hadn't I been leading up to that end?
And later I realized I hadn't. As I was writing I had gotten to know my character and she had grown. My ending made her as meek and passive as she had been at the start. I had curtailed her freedom to pursue her own destiny as much as the nineteenth century society she was living in. Instead, like a good mother, I needed to give her an opportunity to prove herself. This the young adult audience I was writing for would wish for as well, I knew. I had kept making things happen to her and around her and not giving her a chance to involve herself. And so I let her do what I knew she wanted to do--pursue the man she loved, even if I knew it wasn't going to work out just as she planned.
I hope I'll remember this lesson when it's time to launch my own daughter. In the meantime, I'll keep it in mind as I write my fiction. Like parents, writers have the power to shape their characters and their destinies, but they also have the responsibility to let them be who they are.