Recently, I was teaching my students about personal narrative and telling them one of my earliest memories involved climbing a “mountain” with my imaginary friend, Kenneth. I was four, and we lived in Washington State. On sunny days we could see Mount Rainier from our windows, so mountain-climbing was a normal pastime for us. All I needed was my clear, plastic, Winnie-the-Pooh galoshes and a rain jacket, and I was ready for adventure. We’d go out to the log pile and hike up and down it, pretending to reach the summit. Kenneth and I did everything together. He began his life as a darling doll in a pink dress, but after I washed his hair several times in the bathtub, he ended up with a blonde dredlock sticking straight out of his head. My dad wasn’t comfortable with Kenneth in his dresses, so my grandma sewed him blue pants and a red shirt. However, Kenneth the doll wasn’t always allowed to play outside or go to the grocery store with me, so he quickly became imaginary.
Fast-forward a few decades (nearly four). As I was speaking to my students, I realized there is probably a connection between my vivid memories of Kenneth, who had his own personality and actions, and writing my story characters. Years ago, long before I started writing fiction, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s book, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. The part of L’Engle’s book that puzzled me the most was when she was talking about story characters having a will of their own. She says, “It was an exciting plot and I thought I had the story pretty well under control. I had long and carefully worked out what was going to happen to Adam and the other characters” (209). As a teacher who had been teaching plot chart for years, this made sense to me. But L’Engle’s words that follow made me pause. She continues, “Then something unexpected happened. Adam had gone nearly three nights without sleep. . . he woke up and there, sitting in a chair and looking at him was a young man named Joshua. Adam was very surprised to see Joshua. Madeleine was even more surprised to see Joshua” (209). Following the story was a bit of a foreign concept to me, until I started writing fiction myself.
L’Engle says, “I had a choice at that moment. I could ignore Joshua, refuse to allow him into my story. Or I could have faith in the creative process and listen to Joshua” (209). I vividly remember listening to Kenneth, my four-year-old best friend, as we climbed the mountain. When a log rolled out from under me and I fell, knocking out my two front teeth and hitting the back of my head on the stone porch, Kenneth was there. He was there as I rode my red tricycle around my driveway, carting a glass jar of spiders behind me. He was there when I got in trouble and was sent to my room. Being comfortable with an imaginary friend as a child has perhaps made me more comfortable with characters who don’t always act in the way I expect.
For a while, while working on Amber in the Mountains I was worried about naming a character after my grandfather, because I really couldn’t tell whether the character would turn out to be “good” or not. It took an act of faith and surrender to follow the story and see how he would turn out, instead of forcing him into a tidy plot chart.
Have any of you had to deal with unexpected or unruly characters in your writing? How did they turn out?