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May 8, 2013

Ellen Harger: I Argue with Characters

Years ago when I decided to write a contemporary novel (rather than the fantasy stories I’d been writing), it was with great naïveté. Not only for the process of writing, submitting, and editing, but for how the story would come to life. Short story writing is a different beast from novels. Fantasy worlds are fully amenable to the author’s fancy. In Strong Enough, my characters were like petulant actors who stormed off the stage during rehearsal. I didn’t write so much as I begged, pleaded, and had counseling sessions. I was a director who lost control of the set.

Not everyone was difficult. My main character, Whitney Brown, was very fluid in her development. With great patience, she allowed me to toss her into various plots and attitudes like a series of outfits. I’d say, “let’s try this” and she was always willing--even when I turned her Goth for a second. There was little to no arguing with Whitney because the book was about finding her inner strength, so we searched together. It was her innate sweetness that guided me as I revealed her deeper complexities.

Sadi Chavez, on the other hand, was a difficult and stubborn character, rigidly defined. She constantly refused to do what I asked. In fact, because she's a bookstore owner and cynical to boot, she was very snarky toward HEA (happily ever after) endings. No matter how many she read and even enjoyed, she didn't want to be one. The notion went against her very nature. Convincing her to give Marc an honest chance was nearly impossible until I got to know her.

Thank goodness for Marc. He was the most resolved and constant character despite lacking a particular story arc. By no means did he pop fully formed from my head, either. He was a vague idea that I tried to form to Sadi. That was the problem. Despite having no specifics, he was defiant of being a jerk or failing. He really liked Sadi. No matter how difficult she was or how much I begged, he refused to be a chump.

For a long time, I couldn't figure out how to write him fighting for this obstinate, mule headed woman. I wanted him to be believable. And so did he. He refused to say things or do things that didn't feel natural to him. I'M SERIOUS. Marc was independent and didn't apologize for not being the perfect romance stereotype. He was neither overly flawed nor perfect. Instead, he was just a guy with some loyalty and humor. Sadi steamrolls him and he still wants to be with her. It continues to boggle both Sadi and me.

And then there was Gabe. Gabe was a mixture of them all. He allowed me to play dress-up with him, as if he was a Ken doll, but it always felt plastic. No matter what we tried, he returned to a specific path. I could add any detail flourishes as long as it ended one way. I didn’t want to be involved, but it was strangely inevitable--like a moth to a flame.

The final draft of Strong Enough is very different from the first, naturally. And as I’ve learned over and over again, the first catalyst was cut from the story. I began with prompt: a guy returns home to a surprise. After taking a seat in the living room, he notices something out of place. Through the bedroom doorway, he sees a female calf intertwined in his sheets. Hello Goldie Locks. Now go! Why was she there? How did she get in? Does it work out? Is this the beginning or end?

The storyline necessary to make this one moment work was too contrived and required meddling mothers. It read like the teenage romances I adored in junior high, circa 1986. Only my characters were well into their 20’s and their naïveté combined with influential mothers was very annoying.

Ultimately, though, I met all the characters through that first draft and after I resigned the story to them and simply took notes, I captured a story worth telling.

About the Author:

Ellen Harger was born at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. As a military brat, she moved often during her childhood--something she never resented and continued as an adult. The constant starting over would later influence her first published novel, "Strong Enough."
At 14, her family settled in Missouri as civilians, permitting Ellen to attend one high school. She stayed in the Midwest to attend a small liberal arts college, studying creative writing and art. After 11 years in one place, she moved to Boston. While there, she continued to study creative writing in Cambridge. Ever willing to explore new places, she moved next to the San Francisco Bay area. After 11 years away, and loving the symmetry, she returned to the Midwest to finish "Strong Enough." She has published a poem titled "Guidelines" and released her novel as an e-book. 
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