While I’m blanking on any names off hand, I’ve read interviews from writers where they discussed a character taking over. That character will surprise them, throw a wrench into the works, or do something so unexpected and yet totally in character that the writer is forced to shrug and roll with it. They’ll make changes to the plot to accommodate the character. In this sense, the character has become something else bigger than the writer. They’ve become a very real character.
For the longest time, while I understood what these writers were saying, I’d never really experienced it.
I’ve mentioned before that when I originally created Dill, he was supposed to be a throwaway, disposable joke character. After all, who could possibly take an armadillo private detective seriously? When I started writing him for the first time in The Altruist & The Weapon of Masked Destruction, he was my own archetypal character like The Question or Rorschach. He was grumpy, trigger happy, stubborn, pessimistic, and paranoid.
The first time Dill surprised me, in fact, was in that story. He gives the titular character the fifth degree, even accusing them of murder. While writing that original dialogue, I was thinking to myself, “What the hell am I doing? What the hell is this schmuck doing!?” But it fit. And it worked.
And then I killed Dill off. But as my friend and fellow writer Gilbert Stack said, Dill was too fun and too interesting a character to just kill off. And I agreed with him. So I changed it so Dill was in a coma. He was too stubborn to die.
When I started writing The City of Smoke & Mirrors, I wrote the first two chapters just as a test run. And Dill just sort of took over. Writing his dialogue just came out so naturally. Every single douchey thing he said, no matter how low a shot it was at someone else, felt right. He was an asshole. An asshole with heart of gold who would do the right thing in the end and bend over backwards for his friends, but an asshole nonetheless. I ended several chapters on a cliffhanger. My friend Kyle Smith, who was reading the book almost chapter-to-chapter as I wrote the book, asked sometimes how Dill was going to get out of that danger. I just shrugged and said, “I dunno. I’ll let Dill figure it out.”
The thing is, when I write, it tends to be very freely. I don’t tend to put much thought into what I’m writing. It’s almost at a word-to-word basis. Sure, I’ll have a rough blueprint in the back of my mind, but for the most part, what I write is almost directly from brain to fingers to keyboard. This got me trouble sometimes, especially when I write while feeling emotionally unstable. There was a joke in the first draft of Smoke & Mirrors about being more hungry than an Ethiopian. Almost all of my friends who I send the manuscript off for editing came back and strongly suggested I remove the joke. Dill’s an asshole, they said, but he’s not a racist.
But the free writing is a large part of why Dill works so well for me. He’s the kind of character that throws people curve balls all the time. So writing on the fly is just like Dill would think on the fly. He’s not even remotely the planning type, so the loose, free writing suits him well so he can just come off the page.
Recently – and this is the whole reason for this particular post – I was writing a chapter for the new Armadillo Mystery. Late in the book, I was stuck trying to figure out how Dill would get from Point A to Point B. Just as I was finishing the chapter, without even knowing how to get him there, suddenly Dill did something I didn’t expect at all. I sat there, in Starbucks, for a few seconds and thought to myself, “What the hell are you doing, Dill?!” But after a brief self-deliberation, I realized that it suited Dill’s character perfectly and just rolled with it.
I have no idea how his actions will affect the rest of the story or future stories. But Dill did it, it suited the character far too well, and I just couldn’t let it go. Once again, Dill surprised me. I’ve heard of characters taking on a life of their own and now I see what they mean.
But really, that’s what makes writing Dill so much fun for me.