Writing is like giving birth to and raising a child.
During my pregnancies with both of my sons, I spent endless hours wondering what they would look and sound like. What would their personalities be? Would they love reading or race cars? What would they do with their lives and what kind of people would they turn out to be?
The spark of an idea is like that for me. Stories need characters. Who will they be? What will they look like? Where will they go and what will they do?
When my sons were born, they looked and sounded the way they were meant to. I couldn't change that, even if I'd wanted to. My characters are like that. People think I invent my characters and make them who I want them to be. I don't. They just happen. They pop into my head and say, "Hello, there. I'm Max (or Michael, Corinne, Nick, etc.). Let me tell you about myself."
Then we go through that toddler stage together. With my kids, I had this ridiculous notion that I could help shape them into the adults they'd become. Ha! Anthony, my oldest, carried full conversations before the age of two and got angry with anyone who dared use "baby talk" with him. He was and still is impatient with life. Joe has always been the one to sit back and watch. He often seems as if he's in his own world, oblivious to things, but the amount of information he absorbs is astounding. I'd love to take credit for their best qualities and blame their father for their worst. The truth is, I had little to do with the men they turned out to be. They came into this world with a purpose and are busy finding that direction for themselves.
I go through the toddler stage with my characters, as well. I try to force them into a direction that I think is best for them. They dig their feet in, as I drag them along. I stick one in a suit behind a desk and he balks at me. He belongs in jeans with a hammer in his hand. Another is supposed to be secondary to the story, goofy, a sort of comic relief. He grabs his leading man outfit and stomps out to center stage. No way is he comic relief in anyone's story.
Next we go through that initial stage of letting go. With my sons, that came with kindergarten. That first day that each of them climbed on the big yellow bus by himself. I wanted to go with them, hold their hands, explain who they were to the teacher, help them make friends and protect them from the bullies. I couldn't do that and, ultimately, they didn't need me to.
With each book, the kindergarten stage is that first time I send a manuscript out to a beta reader or two. I want to hold on to those pages, be right there during the reading experience. I want to explain the characters to the reader, tell her all the things she doesn't know and might not learn in that story. I want to protect my characters from the reader who might not like or understand them.
Like my children, the beta reader doesn't need me. The reader and my book need to find their own way, just as my children did with their teachers and new friends.
The manuscript comes back to me, as my children did after school each day. I take the critique from the beta reader, I make a few changes, perform the edits. The characters fit into their story and the guidance needed from me is minimal.
Finally, we come to that point when I must set my creations free. With my children, that was both heartbreaking and exhilarating. I want them to be safe, happy, successful. I miss the babies they were but love the men they've become.
This is how I feel about my characters. Once their stories are complete, I need to set them free in the world and hope they will do well. As with my children, not everyone will like them. Not everyone will care who they are or take the time to get to know them. The best I can hope for, with my children and my characters, is that they make an impact on the people they interact with. That they know they matter, they are important. That the very fact that they exist makes life a little better, a little different, for someone out there.