When Characters Come to Life


There is a certain point in my writing when I cease to have control over my characters and the plot. The first time it happened, I was in my early 20s trying to finish a horror novel I'd been working on for years. Around or about page 287, I realized that my protagonist's girlfriend, someone I had come to love very dearly, was going to die. Not only was she going to die, she was going to hang herself because of a crazy reversal of fortune. It had to happen because of the literary allusions I'd already made to classical tragedy, especially Hamlet and Oedipus Rex. It fought it for fifty pages or so, and I lost. I literally cried at my computer.


I've come to believe that character consciousness (my term), the moment when characters in a fictional work start making decisions without permission from the writer, elevates the act of writing from craft into art. I adapted the phrase from artificial consciousness or machine consciousness, terms created in the first decade of the 21st century that refer to artificial intelligence in computers and robotics. In order for character consciousness to happen, an author has to create characters that become real to him/her/them, so real that they cease to feel like fictional characters. That moment just happened in my most recent WIP, Cry of the Banshee. My protagonist, Caoimhe, attends an after-concert gathering of choir students at IHOP, the International House of Pancakes. She's in a strange situation, though she doesn't recognize it because she is a Bean Si, an Irish banshee who sings at the deaths of humans to soothe their journeys into the afterlife. Banshees don't feel human emotions. She doesn't recognize the jealousy of Faith, who doesn't like Caoimhe hanging out with Faith's best friend Avery. Caoimhe also doesn't understand why both Josh, the school football team's QB, and Avery, head cheerleader, perennial homecoming queen, etc., have given her their phone numbers.


Then something happened that even I didn't expect. Avery grabbed Caoimhe's hand and laid her head on Caoimhe's shoulder. What I had planned was that Avery would befriend Caoimhe in order to keep her away from Avery's ex-boyfriend Josh. I had no clue that Avery would push things a little more physically until she did it. Don't ask me to explain how this happens, how my hands can type words that my brain doesn't expect. That's more of an epistemological question than a pragmatic one, and who needs all of those big words rattling around in your head? All I need to know is where this relationship is going. Is Avery bi? Is she really interested in Caoimhe or is she just messing with her head for some reason? Caoimhe's solo at the concert certainly made waves. She had half the audience crying by the end of the song, including Avery. Did that song bewitch the cheerleader somehow?


I still know what's going to happen at the end of the novel, thank God. Things have to occur in a certain way or the whole story will collapse. There are rules regarding the interaction of fairies and humans, and broken rules necessitate action from the highest authorities. So the post-prom bonfire in the forest clearing will happen. Things will get violent, and people will die. Which people? Now I'm not sure. The Bean Si will sing, and Caoimhe will plead for a life. These things I know. Friends, I'm scared and worried and excited. I can't wait to see where this story takes me next. Just like real life, a book isn't about the ending. It's about the journey. And I'm on a crazy one.