When a Character Won’t Cooperate

PhotobucketTherese here. Today’s guest is multi-published historical novelist Karen Essex, author of Dracula in Love, which came out in paperback just five days ago. The tale–the retelling of Dracula’s story but from a female perspective, and with some twists–was praised by Library Journal (“Beautifully written. . . .  Romance and vampire fiction buffs will snap this up.”) and New York Post (“Required reading. . . . Essex retells Bram Stoker’s Dracula legend, but this time the story comes entirely from heroine Mina Harker’s point of view . . . meeting the ubervampire himself face to face, not to mention fang to neck.”). It’s also made a mark–no pun intended–on readers. Said author Bruce Feiler, “I am hardly a vampire freak. The Twilight books ‘eclipsed’ me. And I’ve never owned a set of plastic fangs. But I do love Karen Essex, and this novel is enough to make me a little bloodthirsty.”

I’m thrilled Karen is with us today to talk about how to push through the writing when one or more of your characters won’t cooperate. Enjoy!

When a Character Won’t Cooperate

From the first time that I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula in my teens, though I revered the work, I just knew that the character Mina Harker, Dracula’s obsession, was not satisfied with the role Mr. Stoker gave her—the quintessentially compliant Victorian virgin.  I knew that there had to be more to her than that.  (I knew that there had to be more to any woman than that.)

Anyone who has read my books knows that I am all about restoring grrrrl power to the historical record.  In Dracula in Love, I decided to tackle a work of fiction, reexamining an iconic female character who had not been given her due.  In a nutshell, my plan was to rescue Mina from Stoker’s sexist fantasy of the nice, cooperative girl, and empower her.

No one took this newfound freedom more seriously than the character herself.  Honestly, I had no idea of how much power and autonomy Mina would claim, cutting me—her liberator!—out of the picture and doing her own thing on the page.

A little background: the late Victorian era was a time of tremendous change.  Equal rights for women was a constant topic of discussion in legislative bodies, in the media, and in the home.  In reaction to the freedoms and parity women were demanding, “society,” or “the patriarchy,” or whatever you want to call the keepers of the cultural norm, kept insisting that “good” women were feeble of mind and body and could not handle things like intellectual inquiry, physical exertion, or, God forbid, the vote. At the same time, opportunities for women were increasing rapidly because, frankly, they were needed in the exponentially expanding economy and the industrial workforce.

Naturally, I thought that “my” Mina would be leading the suffragettes in protest marches through the streets of London, going to university to get a degree, and telling the male vampire hunters to bugger off and let her enjoy some tasty vampire sex!  After all, I was rescuing her from the “cult of domesticity” of the late Victorian era and putting her on the cutting edge of change!

Not so.  It seemed that Miss Mina was still clinging to out-moded ideas of womanhood.  The more I tried to write her as a liberated woman, the more she rebelled, screaming in my head that I was no better than the bossy Victorians who told women who they should be.  I tried to reason with her.  “Mina, darling, we have a deadline.  I’ve got this narrative down pat, so you just cooperate!”  No dice.  As long as I persisted in telling her that she must politicize and rebel, she downright refused to send any words my way.  I spent months writing pages and then throwing them away.  I kept referring to my 150 page painstakingly constructed outline, written from Mina’s perspective, but everyday it seemed more irrelevant.  Finally, I had to throw it away.

PhotobucketOne day, I sat down with a notebook and pen and asked Mina who she wanted to be.  I was very, very quiet, letting her voice come through so that I could hear what she’d been trying to tell me. First, she insisted on starting out as a very traditional woman with a deep desire for hearth, home, and family.  To my shock, she told me that she was in line with Queen Victoria, who did not approve of all this emancipation and thought that suffragettes needed a good spanking!  She informed me that she was in total opposition to another character I’d created, the feminist Kate Reed, a journalist who was always trying to get Mina to adapt to the ways of the New Woman.  Mina made me see that as an Irish orphan living in England, her choices were limited, and the one thing that could yield her a decent life was not the right to vote in an election but marriage to the right sort of man.  “Put yourself in my shoes!” she demanded.

And so I did.  Like a reluctant parent, I realized that I had to let Mina evolve at her own pace and her own discretion.  In the end, I’m happy that I capitulated because she has a very satisfying character arc.  If she’d started out the independent woman I wanted her to be, she would have had nowhere to go.  Because I agreed to do it her way, she used the length of the narrative to learn and grow.  Eventually, after much trial and error, Mina learned to accept her intelligence, her gifts, and yes, her powers.  In the end, she actually embodies the Nietzschean quote with which I begin the book,

“You must become who you are.”

That is my belief for Mina, for myself, and for all of us, whether male or female.  Otherwise, a great deal of suffering ensues.

Dracula in Love was my sixth book but the one in which I had a stunning learning curve, and that was to let go of the reins and allow a character room to breathe, grow, and speak.  In her own mystical way, Mina taught me the true meaning of Nietzsche’s mandate, when I’d anticipated that it would be the other way around.

Have any difficult-character stories you’d like to share? The floor is yours.

You can learn more about Karen and her latest novel, Dracula in Love, on her website, by watching this video in which she talks more about her process of writing the book and how it played into her past, and by following her on Facebook and Twitter. Write on!

Photo courtesy Flickr’s by Janine



  1. says

    Great post, Karen, and your book sounds amazing. I love twists on historical fiction like this.

    I know what you mean about letting a character go a little. At the beginning of my second novel, my protagonist got out of bed and grabbed a cane, and I kept thinking, “a cane! He doesn’t have a cane. He’s 11!” But the more I tried to rewrite it, the more my character told me he had a cane. So I stuck with it, and the cane ended up being crucial to his personality and at the end of the book. So I guess my character was much smarter than I was!

    I also really identified with you saying that, even though Dracula in Love was your sixth book, you learned a lot from it. I think we never really stop learning new things with every book.

    Good luck with your book. It’ll be on my to-buy list.
    Samantha Clark´s last blog post ..Writing Young Adult Fiction by Deborah Halverson

  2. says

    What a wonderful journey you had with your Mina – though I’m sure it was rough going during the process :)

    Characters do have a way of intruding on the writing. I have a character that started out as a dispicable abuser, but he refused to follow the cyclic pattern. Turned out he had other mental health issues, but was a pretty decent guy in between. Once we got that issue settled, the novel pretty well wrote itself.

    So nice when author and characters work together.

    Thanks for sharing your story Karen.


  3. says

    Great post, Karen. I find my characters all have their own agendas and I just need to get out of their way. In my current WIP the female protag is in her late 50s, widowed, and retired. I never foresaw a love interest until a certain man showed up and, WHAM, she was hooked. It’s led to plans for a second book and a marriage. ; )
    Zan Marie´s last blog post ..Sweet, Cute, and Productive

  4. says

    I loved this post! My characters often take over, taking me in unexpected directions. During my life as a pantster (a period during which four started WIPs never quite made it to the finish line) it was much more of a problem. I’d write myself into a corner and get stuck.

    Now I use a loose outline when I am writing. That makes it easier to either rein my characters back in when they get too far out of line or revise the outline to make the story more true to the character.
    Roxanne´s last blog post ..Random Thoughts on Thursday: True Grit

  5. says

    I had a character who insisted he was not going to die. Had to change the whole second half of that manuscript. I am re-revising and now (after putting book away for a few years to write something totally different), he still refuses to die.

    Thanks for posting, this. It’s reassuring to know I am not the only person who has a full cast of characters chattering in her head.
    Mari Passananti´s last blog post ..The Grape will keep his wings (and leg room)

  6. says

    I have really enjoyed hearing these stories of ornery and insistent characters. To those who have not experienced this, we fiction writers sound as if we are insane, but the phenomenon is very real. I’ve no idea where these “people” come from, but I am glad that they have picked me to talk to.

  7. says

    The book sounds fascinating. Can’t wait to give it a read.

    In my current wip, my hero wouldn’t talk to me for about the first quarter of the book. No matter how much I pleaded or threatened. After that, for some unknown reason, he just started talking and we got along swimmingly. Of course, then the heroine got jealous. I’m in the last quarter of the book and now she’s refusing to speak. Gah!

    Writers crazy? Nah. We just hear voices. Nothing weird about that.
    Jill Costello´s last blog post ..Nonverbal Communication In Writing–Use It Sparingly