If My Characters Feel So Real, How Can They Be Imaginary?

My life as a writer has provided me many meetings—some fun and some strange.

Fun meetings involve other writers, some best-selling authors, new authors, and many writes in between. Many have become friends.

Other fun meetings involve readers. Their enthusiasm is catching, and they always have great ideas regarding my characters, which always leads me down a path of thoughtful consideration.

I’ve met and become friends with lots of characters, too. Many of these characters that I’ve read about were created by other writers, and some of these characters came into my life via my hand. I wish I could say that I fully created them. They mostly just pop into my life, fully formed, wanting me to write down their stories.

Such was the meeting of yesterday’s character. Only this character is dark and sinister—not the usual, traditional, likeable character that I want to get to know. Generally, I have to probe to learn about my characters—particularly the wounds they are struggling to overcome, which creates the conflict in the stories. Just as in real life, the wounds are buried deep, so it takes time—often weeks—to reveal these wounds.

But this guy was different. He wasn’t hiding a thing.

So there I was, at one of my favorite restaurants in this small community. The place was crowded, every booth and table taken with people standing at the door waiting.

While waiting for my order to arrive, I was reading, as I typically do when dining alone. I was reading Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, a thriller for sure. Most definitely, it’s a dark story, and I was hooked, oblivious to everyone else around me.

All of a sudden this imaginary character—a drop-dead gorgeous hunk of a man with dark hair and dark eyes—sat down opposite me and said, “I know you.”

And then, he just stared. Waiting. Watching. And sharing his story.

The story, which includes a shocking ending, spewed from his mind to mine telepathically and with a gaze that never wavered. Seeing the end of the story, I broke out in goosebumps and felt my skin crawl.

I have other commitments, I argued.

He didn’t care. He’s wasn’t interested in knowing what I’m already working on, what my plan of writing projects looks like for the rest of the year.

Nope, it’s didn’t matter.

His wound was easy to see. No digging needed on my part.

He’s scary. He’s dark. He’s shallow and yet deep. He’s the bad boys of bad boys, but not in a good way or a fun way. He’s not someone you want in your house at all. That kind of scary.

Looks like I’ll be working on several projects, simultaneously. I have no choice. To get rid of him I have to write the story, and I’m not willing to postpone or abandon the others—even if for a short time.

A story that is going to lead me into the dark, spooky corners of an individual or two, who feels as real as any breathing, talking, blood-in-their-veins person in my life.

I can hardly wait.

::shudder::

Part II – Genesis & Development of Grendel’s Mother

The choices I made and why.

So, I had an idea for this book, Grendel’s Mother, and I had 20 or so pages written.

I knew how my story started, and I knew how it would end, but I had only a vague idea about a few special events in the middle.  During the next few years, I would add scenes that I would write out and then file away.  I’d jot notes on napkins, scraps of paper, and on the backs of bookmarks.  Everything went into a file folder.  Then, in 2006, I took all these bits of scenes and dialogues and strung them together, and developed a detailed outline.

I worked on her characterization: her dreams, desires, fears, and flaws.  I knew she would be young.  At first, I had her as fourteen, but then realized that would be too young, so I made her fifteen.  She was a precocious creature, thinking the rules didn’t really apply to her.  Consequently, that thinking always got her into trouble.

In 2009, I began my Ph.D, so once again, all creative writing came to a halt while I wrote academic papers.  With my Ph.D. in hand, I had to make a decision: would I continue writing academically or would I return to my creative writing roots?  I couldn’t do both while working full-time, with most of my time spent teaching, grading papers, and as an administrator for the English Department.

I choose creative writing with the support of my supervisor.  In earnest, the draft writing began.

The writing was not easy.  I found myself jumping from first person to third person but predominately, I was writing in first person.  Which should I use?

I was using both present and past tense.  Again, I found myself asking, which should I use?

I decided not to make a decision until I completed the first draft.  In the end, the book became a first-person, present-tense story, except for a brief period when Grendel’s mother goes back in time, which starts in past tense and then evolves into present tense again because the story brings that back story into the present.

While I had given this character a name, I realized mid-way through the first draft that her name hadn’t been used.  Should it be said?  Was it necessary to know her name?  I ended up naming her but her name is never mentioned in the story.  I chose this route deliberately, even when as a child, Grendel asks his mother what is her name?  She tells him to call her what he always has—Mother.

My outline didn’t include Beowulf characters, not until   Grendel becomes a teenager and starts fighting Hrothgar’s thanes.  While Hrothgar is mentioned early in the story, the others—the thanes and Beowulf—don’t appear until Grendel tangles with them.  In the end, this story is a stand-alone tale of a woman who stands alone, as the only daughter in a large family of brothers, as an outcast from her community, sacrificed to a dragon, and who creates a home in the wilderness, becoming one with Nature, where she gives birth and raises her son.

A reader doesn’t require prior knowledge of Beowulf to understand the story, and yet the story is made richer with that knowledge.  Because I was concerned about readers not having prior Beowulf knowledge, when I was looking for Beta readers, I chose one reader with no knowledge, one with some, and one who had good knowledge of Beowulf.

In the end, all three readers agreed:  it didn’t matter if the reader had Beowulf knowledge or not.

Interestingly enough, the reader with no knowledge has since gone out and purchased Seamus Heaney’s translation in her desire to know more about the epic poem.

Purposefully, I designed this story as a literary and commercial work of art.  While literary, it can easily rest on a traditional mainstream bookstore shelf.  My desire was to craft a story that would appeal to audiences of both young adult, new adults, and adults in general, much like The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games, The Divergent series, and others books have achieved.

So how long did it take me to finish that first draft?

Once I made the determination that I would finish it as soon as possible, with the help of both in-person and virtual write-ins that I attended, I was able to complete the first draft, revised it, and polish it in just a few months.

It was during my writing of Grendel’s Mother that I learned that Beowulf was J.R.R. Tolkien’s inspiration for The Hobbit, that George R. R. Martin’s, The Game of Thrones series was inspired by Tolkien.  And, I have to imagine that many works of today’s fiction and TV series were similarly inspired.