Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 17, 2015

Pushing Characters Off Cliffs

Most writers I know are gentle people. Many are parents, teachers, or others devoted to the care of people and animals. They send wishes for peace at this time of year. But most novels don’t go far if tranquility is at their core. We need to leave our peace-seeking selves behind at the desk when it’s time to stir up conflict.

And this can hurt. Becky Levine recently posted on Facebook about her wrenched stomach and ragged breathing when pushing a character to do something the good person inside her wished he wouldn’t. But was necessary for the story. I’d just had my own revelation that a character was not as lovely as I’d thought, and related to feeling sort of dizzy with dismay, while feeling bound to persevere, after a making pumpkin bread with cranberries. Becky agreed such a break was good, but suggested chocolate chips instead of cranberries. We writers are not just colleagues but allies, and we empathize when our characters go astray. Even as I urged her to let her character stride unblinking into trouble.

Maybe the key here is “letting.” Trying to get more accepting of drama, I began this blog with the image of pushing a character off a cliff, but it’s probably more true to think of it as not standing in the way of a character bound to jump. Really, things aren’t that harrowing in my work in progress, but any misstep even of a conscience can feel that way to cautious me. I began my novel for middle readers wanting a sweet and ordinary girl at the core, and to explore some magic. That’s in place, but as I told a friend, the magic seems to be turning dark. “Magic often does that,” she replied.

So here I am in a forest dimmer than the one I first imagined with a character who’s angrier and has more secrets than I envisioned. I don’t think I shoved or even nudged here there. Did it happen because I had her read The Secret Garden, (something I’m not sure will stay in the finished draft), but perhaps Mary Lennox’s anger was passed along? Or delving deeper into family relationships, did I find myself deeper inside her? Getting to know the girl and her circumstances better, did rough feelings naturally evolve?

Now I no longer have a sweet book and entirely admirable character. I feel the sort of worry and split we do when someone we love does something that we don’t. Usually we can work our way back to love. It’s time for pumpkin bread and tea, getting comfortable with turning lights on and off. Making room, the way my Grandmère’s ceramic angels and my husband’s dinosaurs find a place together.



  1. Jeannine, I just saw this. And I’ve been thinking about our FB conversation a lot. It is such a juggling act between our instincts and our knowing those instincts can be too timid. And between what seems true to our character and what might be exciting enough for the market. I think the key may be serious risk to our character, even if its only their sense of self, even if the risk is redeemable in some way after they take it. So maybe that feeling of risk to ourselves is something we do have to ride along with, at least for a while. Starting to plot Draft 3 and knowing I have some choices to make–will push myself to step at least a ways over my line!

    • So well articulated, Becky. I’m with you. For us to push what feels like a lot may come to others as seeming a little, so I think it’s staying true to our sensibilities and aesthetics (and why write if we don’t), but putting ourselves into new territory, which art always needs. Wishing you good luck!

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