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My Characters Talk To Me
In the past, whenever I heard some flibbertigibbet author drone on about how ‘my characters talk to me…’ I would immediately roll my eyes. Yes, yes, your character talks to you. They create scenes in your head. Your big-breasted protagonist tells you what kind of gin she likes. Your hung cop narrator describes his mean older brother growing up. I’d hear an author say, “I just put two characters together in my head and just watch. Some days it seems like I’m just recording their antics and they’re doing the writing.”
Oh gawd. Kill me now.
I don’t know why it bugged me so much to hear authors talk about their characters that way. Maybe I thought it seemed disingenuous, pretending like writing was magic. Writing didn’t feel like magic to me. I worked hard on sentence construction, reducing adverbs, trying to find plausible motivation. The idea that you drop off your characters like you might a kid for day care and then “just watch,” seemed to dishonor the work that goes into writing.
Maybe it just sounded pretentious.
Maybe it was jealousy. I had been writing for many years and while I loved pondering characters and how they would get along and interact with each other, I can’t say I honestly felt these characters moving through me in a way that felt like they asserted their own will and presence.
Whatever the reason, it was pretty humiliating when I started feeling characters “talk to me.” Not like voices in my head telling me the neighbors are trying to kill me (though I do have my suspicions). No, one day I found myself arguing with a character, the Butterfly King, and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m the author. I get to do what I want.’ In my head, the Butterfly King said, “I see.”
I knew the conversation wasn’t over.
With great humility, it’s now my turn to admit a pretentious truth: sometimes characters talk to me.
They argue with me. I argue back.
What changed? Maybe these days I let myself have more fun with characters. Maybe I finally started listening the way an author is supposed to listen. I dunno. I accept this new reality and I’m blushing a little bit, so I’m aware that I’m a hypocrite at least. That’s something.
I’d like to share some ongoing conversation I’ve had with the main character of my latest release, The Butterfly King. Terrance Altham is a 41-year-old middle manager in a white collar job he doesn’t like. He lives in New York. He doesn’t like how his life has played out so far, feeling he was meant for a greater destiny but family obligations kept him from a life where he might have been someone more important.
Who knows? Perhaps he could have even become a king.
Me: Who the hell are you?
BK: I am known as the Butterfly King. I wish you to tell my story.
Me: Well, I’m busy. I’m doing edits for King Perry and this is my first published novel, so I’d prefer to concentrate.
BK: I am known as the Butterfly King. I wish you to tell my story.
Me: You said that. Take a number. Not to burst your bubble, but I was also thinking of writing a story about an angry farmer.
BK: I have decided to be the third book in your series, The Lost and Founds.
Me: Busy now. Go away.
BK: My story takes place in New York. You’ll have to move to New York, temporarily at least, to better understand me.
Me: HEY. BUSY.
BK: I love New York, so you must find a way to express my love for this great city. You must show people why New York is the greatest city on earth.
Me: Oh, please. New York isn’t all that.
BK: It is. You must show my great love—and frustration—with New York City. I have decided.
Me: I’m in the middle of something.
BK: Oh yes. You’re busy with the white boy in San Francisco. I like him. He and I will become friends in the future. Things you should know about me. I have an older brother. My parents love me a great deal and I love them. We live together in Harlem. I spent a great deal of time at the New York Public Library when I was a child.
Me: HEY. I’M BUSY.
BK: You must change your tone when addressing me. I *am* the Butterfly King.
Me: Yeah, you keep saying that. Why did you call Perry ‘white boy?’
BK: I am black. I am gorgeous with dark skin, a thick nose, and beautiful big lips. Some look upon me and see I am plain in appearance. Others recognize the truth of me, that I am stunning and blessed as one of the Sparkling Spirit’s greatest creations.
Me: Gosh, not much of a self-esteem problem, huh?
BK: Why would I deny the truth of who I am?
Me: Actually, I like your confidence. I find it sexy. What’s your name?
BK: You will help others see my power. My beauty.
Me: Yeah, okay. I’m listening. What’s your name?
BK: All will be revealed in time.
Me: Honestly, I’m not sure I’m a good enough writer to portray a strong black man from New York City.
BK: You’re not. But I will help you. I will guide you. You will read books about the African-American experience. You will study the impact of growing up in a racist society. You will research black populations migration to New York and the challenges. You will grow your sensitivity.
BK: Also, I really like getting my dick sucked.
Me: Well, uh, thanks for sharing. I need to know about your background, your childhood. Would you say your—
BK: No, that’s enough. My goal was to introduce myself. I am finished.
Me: Wait—I don’t know anything about you. I barely—
BK: I am the Butterfly King.
Me: Yes, we covered that. But it’s hard for me to think of a character and get to know him without at least giving him a name.
BK: The title of your third book will be The Butterfly King.
Me: Oh. I have a problem with that. See, I’m naming each of the books after the man’s first name. So to keep with the tradition, I’d—
BK: The Butterfly King. It’s the third book’s title.
Me: But that ruins my consistency. That’s not…that’s not how I wanted to name things.
BK: I see. Well, you will have time to adjust your thinking.
Me: The thing about building your brand and marketing is that readers have to know—
BK: Stop. I do not care for marketing chatter. You now know the title of the third book. I suggest you begin thinking about moving to New York so I can show you the city. Help you understand my world.
Me: Okay, new character, you’re kind of bossy. I think you’re sexy and smart, which I like, but moving to New York sounds expensive. And I’d have to get work to agree to let me ago. What about a long weekend? Or maybe a week of vacation?
BK: Do you know why you will move to New York temporarily and make me the subject of your third book? Do you know why you will title it as I wish?
Me: Why is that?
BK: *Standing tall* Because nobody fucks with the Butterfly King.
Me: I’ll start looking on Craigslist for New York City apartments.
BK: I am glad we understand each other.
Postscript: in May of 2013, I moved to New York City where I lived for a month in a studio apartment while researching this book.
Edmond Manning has been writing for many, many years, but only recently started publishing books. In 2012, Dreamspinner Press offered his first book, King Perry. His 2013 release, King Mai, was a finalist in the Lambda Literary Awards in the Gay romance category. In Late August (or early September), Manning will release the third in this series, The Butterfly King.
You can find his books: