I had such high hopes when I met Natalie Griffiths for the first time. She had just died (Stroke. Felled her like a tree.) without finishing her cigarette and she was bent on having another, however long it took. While she argued her case with her account manager Natalie managed to cause the death of her husband and antagonise said manager so much that she, the manager, bungled the procedure of preparing two deceased for the after life. On top of it all, Natalie — and her husband — escaped from the waiting room of the Great Beyond setting the stage for many ghost adventures. And a cigarette, obviously.
I didn’t plan on it. Natalie was great. She was to be my first genuinely funny character. No melodrama, no tragedy, just some fun. And then she acquired a mother, as dead as Natalie and Dan, and as resentful as the loser in a cat duel. She also acquired a daughter facing financial problems because of an evil business partner. Add to this a boyfriend (for the daughter. Natalie only slept with Dan’s partner ages ago. Once.) who can hear and, with a bit of an effort, see the dead and the no-melodrama part of my plan was gone.
I could live with that. I’m nothing if not flexible. Melodrama is not that bad as a counterweight to humour. Natalie and her mother have a difficult relationship but, or I should maybe say and, they are also virtuoso at verbal fights. Mummy dearest also naturally hates Dan and this is funny, too.
And then Natalie and Dan sealed a deal with their account manager, Arianna, to stay ghosts for another twenty years, which they thought would be enough to make sure Katie, their daughter, would be reasonably happy for the rest of her life. And Arianna cheated. Dan was sucked into the other side. And Natalie went after him.
Okay. Now. Don’t get me wrong. I know there are writers who enjoy being led through the plot by their characters. They create the characters — or maybe just call them to life — and then take their hand/s and follow them, recording everything that happens. I’m not one of those writers. My characters are free to do whatever they want as long as they stay in the plot that I planned for them.
You want to fly? No problem. Get out of the house –and away from the afterlife troopers — through a space tunnel and practise flying in front of your daughter’s office in London. Then fly back home. You want to get involved in afterlife bureaucracy politics? I’m sorry, where did that come from?
Sometimes characters go rogue and it’s entirely the writer’s fault. My plan was to have Natalie follow Dan into the other side (and I’ve just realised it smacks of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which just goes to show there are no original plots), fight some troopers and get him out of there, proceed to living/haunting happily ever after. I had trouble with the “get him out of there” part of this plan. More specifically, I had a problem with the how part of this part of the plan.
In the process of my solving the problem in a plausible and enjoyable way, Natalie got herself involved in afterlife politics. Which meant I had to do something I really don’t like doing. I had to world-build. Nothing fancy, you understand. I will never write anything that would deserve to be called epic but I had dropped my character, a woman I respect and admire, and would love to meet in person, into a world of plotting and scheming, and bureaucrats fighting for funding. In other words, to answer my how question from above, I had to dive into a cesspool of whats, wheres, whos, and more bloody hows, with a few whys. They’re the stinkiest ones.
That’s why I love writing. You start telling a story, you watch it grow and take shape and very often this shape changes because the story feels more comfortable this way. I had no intention of world-building — I never have intentions of any world-building — but it was forced on me by Natalie. So I’ve been building a world now. It’s a cruel, largely joyless world but it’s necessary because there must be order and the universe must continue to exist.
At this point, I don’t even know if Natalie and Dan will make it out of the other side. They have to, because Natalie wants to see Katie settled, but politics is a snake pit especially in an institution such as the afterlife soul distribution centre. Which needs a better name. If you’ll excuse me, I’l go jot down a few ideas. Beware your wayward characters.
*Pictured above: wayward characters.