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Getting friendly with my characters

Posted in Characters

Some people think of a novel and a movie version as at least roughly equivalent, at least from the perspective of the story. Yes, a novel allows internal perceptions from the characters in a way difficult for a movie, and movies concentrate on visual tools more than language, but nonetheless, the stories and characters are at least recognizably related.

Others have a different view, one which I agree with. They maintain that the more appropriate match is to a season of a quality television show, in that newish long form that cable television has been cultivating for the last few years. In other words, a season of Game of Thrones is more similar to a book in that series than any movie could be.

I think this is true for several reasons. Most obviously, the time it takes to watch, say, 13 episodes is more closely equivalent to the time spent to read a long novel, and thus characters and plots can develop to a similar depth of complexity.

But there's another feature which isn't much discussed. For a reader, reading the novel and watching the entire season of a show in a marathon are a good match. For a writer, however, a better match to the novel is the full season viewed over time. The 3+ months of the episodes, one per week, is much closer to the time it takes to write the book. Here I am not speaking specifically of George R. R. Martin who is notoriously taking a very long time between his sequels, but of myself.

Why do I think the time factor matters? When I watch a season of shows as they occur, I have a week between episodes to chew on the characters, to speculate about how they will grow over time, what they will do, what complications might ensue. I learn about my own characters in a similar way over time as I write about them, as I rub them around trying to understand how they fit together, how the intended plot is altered by their personalities in ways I cannot entirely control. I don't do this while I'm actually writing so much, but in all the other hours of the day, as if I were speculating about a popular show that only I can see..

By thinking so long and hard about my own characters I give them a sort of mental life. They're something like friends. I feel for their distresses as I sympathize with their joys. I obsess over certain scenes that seem primal to me, as I might reread a special moment in a favorite book when I'm in a particular mood. Until I write those scenes down, anything could happen. After I've made it concrete to myself, I can't change it radically, as if the event had reality outside of my imagination and now was an immutable part of the character's history.

It's very odd. No wonder writers walk around mumbling about their characters and the independent lives they lead. I can't imagine having two wildly unrelated works going simultaneously, where the characters inhabit different moral universes. It would be like trying to live with two sets of incompatible in-laws at the same time, always trying to reconcile them.

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