When Characters Get Sassy

by Elizabeth Boyce, author of Once a Duchess and Once an Heiress

Once an HeiressGrowing up in a Southern family that put good manners on par with godliness, we children were taught to comport ourselves as ladies and gentlemen. One of the first lessons we learned was to respect our elders. At family events, adults ate in the formal dining room, while kids ate in the kitchen – and woe unto the child who dared disturb that hallowed sanctum for anything less than a life or death emergency. Saying “ma’am” and “sir” was as natural as breathing. We were not to interrupt adult conversations, and never, ever to talk back when we were scolded.

“Don’t you sass your grandmother!” my mother admonished me.

“Your sassy mouth is gonna get you in trouble,” said my first cousin once removed. Beneath her red bouffant, blue-shadowed eyes cut a meaningful look at the bar of Dial soap cradled in a shell-shaped dish beside the bathroom sink.

In my family’s parlance, sassy wasn’t a compliment; it was an indictment.

You might understand my distress, then, when I tell you of my horror in discovering I had sassy characters on my hands while writing my newest novel.

It all started with Lily, heroine of Once an Heiress. If you’ve read my debut novel, Once a Duchess, you might remember Lily Bachman as Isabelle’s stalwart friend. Throughout Duchess, Lily has no qualms about taking to task anyone who speaks against her dear Isabelle. I knew Lily to be feisty. Spunky, even. I didn’t know she was going to turn on me, and that she would, in fact, be sassy. Lily had strong opinions on absolutely everything I tried to write into her story. From her mode of dress to the way she dealt with her suitors, I couldn’t get anything on the page without Lily interjecting her tuppence in the most irreverent fashion.

But as forthcoming as Lily was with her opinions, the novel’s hero was equally reticent. The work I put into developing his character was a painstaking task of pulling together the pieces of his personality, bit by bit. This man didn’t want to give me anything – not even his name. Even when I finally had a solid grasp of his looks, his habits, the way he walked and spoke, he still wouldn’t let me name him. It took my pronouncing he would henceforth be called Harry for him to finally speak up. “My name is Ethan,” he snarled. Oh. Alrighty, then. I duly made note of this fact and moved along.

Ethan caused me trouble in other ways, as well. He grew up with an abusive father. At the time of the novel, he is totally estranged from his sire. I played with the idea of writing some sort of reconciliation between father and son, or perhaps giving Ethan the opportunity to tell the old man exactly what he thought of him. But Ethan refused to take part in anything involving his father, except to curse his continued existence. He made it abundantly clear that he didn’t give a damn about my thoughts on the matter. Ethan does not speak to his father, and that’s the end of it. If I wanted his continued cooperation in the novel, I would not attempt to force him into the company of his loathsome parent.

Yet another character, an Italian opera singer named Ghita, exhibited some truly diva-like behavior. She loved to make an appearance whenever opportunity struck, even if she wasn’t supposed to be there. Several of her scenes wound up cut from the final novel, but I had to write them to keep her happy.

Dear reader, I ask you: Is this any way for characters to treat their creator? Have you ever witnessed such unmitigated gall? Such sass? Perhaps I was naïve in assuming that characters from a society with strict rules of conduct so similar to my own background would treat their author with the respect due an authority figure. Unfortunately, this gaggle of miscreants didn’t get the memo on decorous behavior befitting ladies and gentlemen in fictional Regency England. And while getting them to behave was like herding cats, I do hope you’ll enjoy reading about these vivacious characters.

2 thoughts on “When Characters Get Sassy

  1. Leslie Garcia

    Love your post–and I’m a Southern girl. Not born there, but considered GA my home before winding up a Texan. We did learn our manners, so I can sympathize with you having characters turn on you.

    Especially love that Ethan decided Harry didn’t work for him!

    Continued success, and good luck with those rebellious characters!

    Leslie Garcia