Ezekiel 37: Breathing Life into Dry Bones

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Today, I welcome fellow novelist J.D. Horn, author of Witching Savannah, to the blog. Here’s what J.D. has to say about storytelling, character, and the crafting of a novel.

In Memory of Daniel Trujillo

I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.  I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. (Ezekiel 37:5b-6a New International Version (NIV))

In Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, this invocation causes a great army to rise up from the skeletal remains of long dead warriors, not just in the (still ubercool) Ray Harryhausen way, but in a manner that literally fleshes them out and returns their humanity to them.

Breathing a semblance of life, imbuing humanity into one’s characters (even the undead ones) is pretty much every writer’s goal. I am not one of those writers, though, who create detailed character biographies and map out every plot twist before beginning  writing.  I admire those who do, and admire even more those who can stick to their outline and manage to make their characters tow the line.

Like the denizens of  Ezekiel’s valley, my characters begin their lives as mere skeletons, usually nothing more than a compilation of ticks, traits, and quirks held together by my own admonition to them to live. I put these inchoate creatures together and see what situations develop as they interact with each other.

I watch to see which of them want to come out to play, to breathe, to love, to sin. I work and rework.  I add to or rethink their back story so that I can better understand their motivations. I know I am on the right track when a character begins to tell me her own story. I really know I am on the right track when a character disobeys. (That’s why Eve is the most interesting personage in the whole Bible. Without her we’d be left with nothing but a coffee table edition of “Above Eden.”)

WitchingSome characters claw their way onto the page. Mother Jilo Wills, Witching Savannah’s resident Hoodoo root doctor, was intended to be nothing more a name mentioned on a single page (in connection to another character). But she began talking to me, telling me her story. Before I knew what was happening, Jilo became the glue that held the series’ first novel (The Line, coming from 47North in 2014) together. When it came time to begin The Source, second book in the Witching Savannah series, Jilo’s was the first voice I heard.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies a character I had named Daniel Trujillo. I had intended Daniel to be The Line’s leading man. He was to be a sensitive, multicultural patriot who returned from his last deployment in Iraq with a souvenir he really needed help losing. His arrival in Savannah would be the inciting incident for all action that followed. He would be handsome, tough, loyal, brave. He would get even the girl. I fought hard for Daniel, but my skeleton warrior never drew a breath. In his last sad moments, he stopped being an individual and became nothing more than a plot device on legs.

HornAfter a couple sleepless nights, I realized that Daniel didn’t belong in the story of the Taylor Witches; the story that wanted to be told was very different from my original  inspiration. The only time I truly connected with Daniel was when I sensed his relief as I let him slide back into the limbo of characters who never fully develop. In another tale, Daniel might rise again, perhaps somewhat changed or maybe strikingly similar to the way I had originally envisioned him.  But for now he’ll lie sleeping in the sand-swept valley of dry bones.

J.D. Horn is the author of The Line (Witching Savannah), coming February 2014 from 47North. Yes, J.D. does carry on full conversations with his characters. Yes, they do often talk back. And yes, should the doctors ever calibrate his medications correctly, his career as a novelist will probably be over.

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