From outside, a horrified white boy watched, along with his 10-year-old classmates, all of them wearing spacesuits for that day’s field trip. They saw their homes and families consumed, not yet thinking that the fight for survival had just begun.
When I woke from the dream (which had irrationally included turnstiles in the dome’s airlock), I immediately rolled over, grabbed a piece of paper, and wrote “Folley Haymon.”
Because that had been the boy’s name.
I am fortunate (in my eyes) to often dream in stories. This high school dream, however, has so far been the only one where I woke up and knew the protagonist’s name. So it’s the closest I’ve ever come to having a character walk into my head fully formed.
The mystical idea of characters created whole, of simply “coming to” the author is far from unique; there are a number of authors who talk about letting their characters go wild on the page. J.K. Rowling says that she was sitting on a delayed train when "Harry just strolled into my head fully formed." Even Stephenie Meyer says Twilight all started with a dream that became Chapter 13.
It’s a delightful notion, that these characters already exist and a writer’s job is to come along and note their adventures. It’s also false, of course.
While the choices, actions, and words of a character might not always come from a writer consciously, they do still come from the writer. That writer’s experiences, including personal and that from the tales of others, settle in their subconscious and then sometimes come out and surprise the writer on the page.
And it’s a great feeling, to have the story write itself. But that great feeling doesn’t mean the story is done. When story, character, words are created at a subconscious level, they must always be considered as a first draft. And no serious writer would finish a first draft and meet any criticism or editorial advice with, “It just came to me that way.”
That’s when the conscious steps in to revise, and question everything.
Consider Folley. My subconscious made him white, male, ten. My conscious needs to ask, “Why?” Why white? Well 95% of the people in my town were white growing up, and the mainstream media I was surrounded with was pretty white, so that explains it. When it came to space adventures, the stories I’d read and seen had been about boys, so that explains that. My youngest brother was 10 at the time, so maybe that’s why I hit upon that age. Such instincts are fine for the subconscious; but when it comes to putting a story down, there is no reason to go with your brain’s default.
Gut instincts often lead to regurgitating what we’ve already seen; Chuck Wendig calls it the human centipede of fiction. It’s how cliches and stereotypes and tropes are born. I’m not saying every writer needs to change every character they make. But it doesn’t hurt to stop and think. Every aspect of who they are, everything they do and say, comes from you. You are responsible.
So consider those first draft characters. Try to see them as changeable as plot or word choice. I was brainstorming recently with my author Thea Harrison about a character and she said, “I may make him the hero of the next book or I may kill him. Nothing is written in stone.” And then she gave a proper supervillain laugh. But she’s right; nothing about a book should be too precious to change, and that includes its characters.
Question your instincts. You may hit upon the same answer, but at least it will be a choice you made.