Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Do You Own Your Characters or Do Your Characters Own You?

As an agent I get to hear lots of different types of authors discuss their writing process and how they go about crafting a world, and especially the lives of characters.

One common refrain is that authors often go into a story with certain ideas about how the story is going to go, but all of a sudden, once characters really begin to come alive they take the story in a different direction altogether.

And this can really help out a story - while obviously the characters are only alive insasmuch as they're in the author's (living) head, this may be a way of expressing that the author is being true to the logic of a situation. The author has a sense of the character, and it's important that the character's actions are logically consistent.

At the same time, I always find it curious to hear authors so completely in thrall to their worlds and characters, and I start wondering, "Wait a second, who's in charge here?"

Once the characters and worlds begin to take life it can be a danger if the author lets the characters take the story in a completely different direction. Willful characters can walk themselves straight out of a plot if the author loses touch with the story and instead just follows the characters' whims.

My personal belief is that the story has to come first, but at the same time, I definitely think it's important to listen to the inner logic of a character who is coming alive. Balance is everything.

How do you balance story while being true to a character?






164 comments:

Misty said...

Hmmm. They come, they help, they bug out if I'm not listening. It's a volatile relationship. Sometimes they keep me up late, wake me in the night, pull me away from dinner. But if I neglect them, when the fingers hit the keyboard, they turn their backs like the paparazzi did to Clooney on one of his red carpets. So it is a marriage, I suppose.

sue laybourn said...

Interesting post. A couple of weeks ago, I answered a writing challenge on AW. The challenge was to write a scene from a different POV from my usual (3rd person close, female MCs). I wrote 1st person POV, male. The two characters in the scene wouldn't leave me alone. Two days later I had a plot for them and now, two weeks further on, I'm 20k into a shiny new story. They're certainly not dictating the plot but they're taking up a lot of space in my head!

Liberty Speidel said...

While I usually give my characters some 'leash room', so to speak, I'm usually pretty certain of where I'm heading or need to head with my stories. I'll allow them some leeway, but they have the understanding that if they get off on a tangent, I will eventually cut that tangent out.

In a way, writing with strong characters can be like herding cats, but as long as you maintain the fact that you, the writer, are in charge, I think they, the characters, will usually cooperate. And, together, you'll come up with a pretty darn good book. :)

Diana said...

It's a balancing act. Characters often get pig-headed and want to hog the story all to themselves. It's up to me then, as the writer, to haul them back into thier pen and make them behave.

On the other hand, if a character doesn't tell me his/her name...the story goes nowhere. I can write about 500 words before I have to stop and say, "Hey...I am NOT going to write this entire story as a he-said, she-said. Tell me your name or you're done." I have document folders filled with such story non-starts because the character didn't take charge and come out fighting. :)

LilySea said...

When I used to hear fiction writers talk like this I would roll my English-Lit-crit eyes. Those characters are MADE UP after all--by the writer. It seemed a dismissal of responsibility for what was written to claim the writer couldn't help it because the character insisted on blah blah blah.

Now I'm writing fiction and I am more sympathetic, because it really does FEEL like the characters are separate people from me, making their own decisions about their live and even having conversations with each other that I am merely recording.

I know better of course. What I do with this experience is think about what part of my psyche is expressing itself in this removed-from-me fictional realm. It's quite interesting.

But I have learned (rapidly--I've barely been writing fiction for half a year!) to audit these supposed conversations and doings of the characters for where they are taking the plot or the main theme of the story. If they are taking it afield, I may chalk up these things the characters seem to be telling me about themselves as useful backstory for me to create a better fictional world, without actually including the information in this particular book.

But I've also realized just how many stories I have here in my head and how many interesting vehicles (characters) my psyche has produced to tell those stories. So I've got about 6 books (a cycle, not a series) in my head to get all these stories told and all these characters fleshed out. If something feels important but doesn't fit THIS book, I may write it and stick it in the notes for a prequel or sequel or concurrent but separate book.

Pamela Gwyn Kripke said...

I am always thinking about the story--where it is, where it is going. The characters, then, act as they would, within that story. So, they have certain freedom to be who they would be, yet they are confined, so to speak, to the plot.

Whitney said...

Considering I attempt to put a bit of myself in every character (main or secondary, hero or villain), I think it's a bit of a see-saw.

Though, it's rather annoying when a character starts influencing my own habits when I'm trying to get in their head space. I do not need to steal that painting downstairs, thank you slightly-reformed thief character.

Noelle Nolan said...

Some of my characters own me, but most I own. The ones that own me are the annoying ones. They have their own vision of how the story should go. They keep beckoning me to follow them, tempting me with sweet words of story lines, dialogue, and setting. Sometimes I will follow them, just to see if their "vision" will work. Sometimes it does and other times it doesn't.

I love my relationships with my characters no matter how much of a pain in the butt they may be.

Tina Lynn said...

So far I've never had a character take me someplace I shouldn't go. It has always made the story better. At least for me.

Stephanie McGee said...

I had this happen on the manuscript I'm currently revising. A character wanted to be older and not go the direction I had him going. Which turned out fine. I met him halfway on the age thing and gave the other part of the story to a character that is better suited to it. But I was definitely in danger of losing the story to my characters until I took the reins back. (So to speak.)

Maggie Desmond-O'Brien said...

I've always had issues with *orchestrating* the story in the background, which tends to make my writing sound quite forced. So whenever characters take me in another direction, I try to listen. But I know some people who probably should have kept a tighter leash on them - I think it really depends on the writing style.

aspiring_x said...

Wait! You mean my characters aren't real people? Then who do those voices belong to?

JLC said...

I can't say that my characters have ever led me away from the plot, but I love it when they suddenly reveal a surprise. I don't mind taking a back seat while the character drives, as long as I can give them some direction from there.

Krista said...

Generally, I plot out 4-5 main points or events for my story. Once the groove hits, when the characters are showing me what to do, I hold the reins only by saying, "I'll let you go, but get me to that next point." And I love it when they do. I love it when they blow me away with how they get there.

Scott said...

I read a quote once and sadly I can't remember who said it. It went: "Don't bully your characters or they'll fix you for good". The meaning being, if you bend things too much to suit your plot, your story will fall apart.

I have to think a character walking out is a definitely sign your plot is weak, or too nebulous, or perhaps not about what you think it's about. If you're creating characters with no discipline, you may still be sorting issues of theme and subject in your head.

Balance is indeed necessary, but if you continue to have the same problems, your plot may not be saying enough. In fact, you may be finding your real story in character, which for novels of most ilk, is a damn good place to start.

Lisa Desrochers said...

I write by the seat of my pants and my characters are totally in charge. I start with a character or two and a situation and it goes from there. My characters often take the story places I'm not altogether comfortable with, but that's the story they need to tell.

I was a little worried about signing a 3-book deal for this reason. It's hard to know where a series is going with no outline. I've finished the sequel and it appears that 3 books is going to be about right, so I my characters seem to be behaving for the moment. =)

Jenny said...

I find that when characters are fighting me it's actually the story telling me that there is conflict opportunity in that scene--if I as the author want the story to go a certain way, but I have a character who won't cooperate because his/her own personality won't roll with the punches, I have to negotiate with that character by creating a situation or two wherein the character *is* convinced. Whenever a character 'comes to life' is when the story is working. Whenever they're 'fighting', it's an opportunity for the writer to actually show the story.

We can take the recent show of Lost **I apologize if anyone hasn't seen it yet--go see it** as an example: The mysterious Jacob (in our example 'the writer') needs Hurley and Jack (the characters)to go to a certain spot.
Hurley's easy, he just says okay when Jacob says to go. Jack is not that easy--he's a fighting character. However, Jacob knows just the trigger that will make Jack go and gives it to him. The result: the plot moves forward, with an interesting bit of internal conflict added in.

Our job as the writer is to know what triggers our characters to do what they need to do in order to move the story forward. Hopefully with a minimum of navel gazing as we work it out....

Mira said...

Really interesting topic, Nathan!

I think for me - the character gets the last word. If I'm trying to make the character do something, and the character doesn't want to do it, there's a problem with my plot. If I force it, it won't ring true.

Now, there have been a few times I've re-written characters so they will match the plot, but that's risky - you can water the power of a character down that way.

But again, are you writing a powerful story or trying to capture character? Or both?

Maybe for some writers the story is more important, and for others the character is. Maybe it depends on the writer and where their voice comes out most clearly....

I don't know the answer to this. I'm just thinking out loud. It's interesting to think about...

Ink said...

I find it very difficult to separate the two. That is, story and character are integrally entwined. I mean, the character's existence is contingent upon the story. The existence of the story is the existence of the character. The story breeds the characters and the characters breed the story. A bit chicken and egg, at least for me.

Neither exist outside the other. I know some people have characters that come to them outside the story, that talk to them in the shower, chat about things going on in the writer's life... but not for me. The characters exist very particularly in a specific context: the story.

I know a lot of writers like to do exercises of putting their characters in new situations (outside their story) to help the writer learn them, to help find the voice. For me (and I mean this very subjectively) this is dangerous as there's a certain warp to the character. They're bent a little askew. Much of what we are as human beings is a summation of our experiences and our reactions to these experiences. If my characters exist somehow outside the story they are changing, evolving away from the story and in a way that doesn't serve the story.

So for me, in a sense, the story and the characters are one and the same, and the characters own (or are owned by) me no more and no less than the story itself. That is, they're shaped by me in a whirl of conscious choice and subconscious influence. I like to think I own both those processes, even if I never fully understand the latter of the two. But perhaps that is as it should be.

Taymalin said...

If my characters are staging a revolt, it's time for me to take a long hard look at the plot I'm trying to push on them. More often than not, it's flawed.

I think that my characters are representations of, maybe even gateways to my subconscious, thus they can notice things I don't. They don't fight me without good reason, so I listen.

J. Koyanagi said...

I like to have a decent outline when I write, so if a character takes the story in a direction I wasn't anticipating, then I'll probably pause and re-work the outline accordingly. I think of it as me looking out for my characters so they don't fall into any unseen plot holes.

Steve Masover said...

I've had characters show up out of nowhere and give a plot depth. I've had characters amble off into the weeds because I needed to find out what they were like 'off camera.' The trick, I suppose, is to recognize the difference. The first sort of visit stays in the manuscript. The second gets relegated to the deep-background files.

Alicia A said...

For me it depends on was inspires me first, a plot idea or a unique character.

My first WIP began with a unique plot that I developed characters to live out. After I finished the story though, the thrill was over and it got stalled in the rewrite/revision process.

Meanwhile, a great character inspired me to start WIP #2. The first draft is coming along much slower because I'm not sure how the story will unfold but the voice is solid.

At this point, I can't say which process I prefer. Whatever gets the best end product I guess.

Debra Moolenaar said...

My characters do often try to take the upper hand (the stronger ones) and I let them as long as I can make some sense of the plot. I value the characters' abilities to see more depth in their own situations than I ever do while telling the story about them that I'd thought needed to be told. Isn't it just the same when you meet someone for the first time? By the end of 10 minutes you've crafted an image of them (and often their 'life story') only to find out 10 days later they are a completely different kettle of fish.

Anonymous said...

I'm definitely in the "logic" camp. I re-write heavily, so that frequently I'm adjusting something that happened to a character before some other part of the plot. My characters don't have "personalities," exactly, but they do have ways of reasoning and strings of emotional continuity that I pay a lot of attention to maintaining. I suppose if we go with the conceit that they're self-willed, sure, they can "want" to go off in another direction. But I hold all the carrots and all the sticks; it's always in their interest to get back to the plot, or at least they think it is.

Zee

Donna Alward said...

Characters frequently surprise me, and I love that part because I feel it adds freshness and depth. I think I really know them and then wham...something comes out that just makes perfect sense. It is never a 180 in character, though. It's always true to who they are, and I'm comfortable to let them lead. It's MY job to take the parts of that character and reveal what needs to be revealed to the reader by crafting the story.

Several books ago my heroine wanted to do something. I hadn't planned on it going that way and I fought it. In the end I thought fine, I'll write it her way and if it doesn't work there's always the delete key. It turned out to be a major turning point for the story and really carried the conflict.

I'm in the driver's seat, but I'm open to taking direction. :-)

Thermocline said...

I thought the whole concept of characters taking a story in a different direction was just plain odd when I first heard about it. I mean … really? They took over? But then I started writing and it happened to me too. A window opened in my mind. Or my MC opened it. Now, I’m not sure who did it.

Vicky said...

I'm constantly surprised by the things my characters say. :-)

Designs by JoLea said...

My characters tend to take on a life of their own as I write, which I believe is what lends the story of their lives credibility.

I do make sure they reach certain climax points in my story, but they have to tell the story in a way that makes sense to them.

The only time I get into trouble is when I start talking about them like they are real people, to real people.

E. Elle said...

I've always considered myself a vessel for my characters to tell their stories. Sometimes, though, I have to take hold of the reins to keep the story on track. I can't be trying to tell three novel-length stories in 500 pages; it just doesn't work. It seems we have something of a love/hate relationship but we all are working towards the greater good of the story itself.

James said...

Characters and Story are interlinked for me. Not necessarily the same, but infinitely attached.

A character's actions are part of the story, and if the character needs something in particular, the story's going to change to fit that something. And if I need the story to go in a definite direction, the character has to accommodate it. And then to twist again, if a character is being bent in an untrue way, the story needs to change.

It's a mobius strip of a question. See?

To go beyond that, I feel that writing a story is channeling. When writing or editing, I'm finding the form in which it exists already. Any deviation from that form comes out wrong, feels off, or in general has to be cut. The character/story connection has already figured itself out; I'm just trying to understand and capture it.

Harley D. Palmer said...

If my character wants to go off plot, I let them! That doesn't necessarily mean its in the story. It usually takes the form of some oddball conversation between me and my character! I am going to start compiling them and putting them on my website actually, because it can be pretty funny! (I hold true to the quote "Writing is an acceptable form of schizophrenia".)

Other times it's just a scene that is great and true to the character, but not relevant to the plot of the story. That goes into the "deleted scenes" folder. I might started posting those up too.....

Katie said...

Nope. Never had this problem. I am a control.freak.

Madison L. Edgar said...

That's a toughy! The first time I noticed my MC changing the story was when he did something totally IN character, but OUT of context. I was like, whoa, wait a second. I tried telling this to my boyfriend (who doesn't know a thing about writing) and he thought I was psycho. Personally, I think the story's better off when the character doesn't sacrifice himself for the sake of the story. I like to let the characters stay in control and if the story changes because of it, so be it!

Jamie said...

This is a very interesting question looking forward to reading the comments!!

Kate said...

Am halfway through a crucial scene in WIP even now for this very reason. Several possible outcomes, not sure which one to choose because of how said outcomes will define characters.

I know what I WANT to happen, but I'm afraid it weakens my MC and dilutes my villain. Don't want that. Alternative makes me want to fist bump MC and sucker punch villain, but am afraid it's too much drama.

I know who I want my main character to be. And while solution A is more satisfying for me as writer, it's inconsistent with who she is at this point in the story. Therefore, solution B.

I hope you're still in control when you're aware of the options and you make choices to create the characters you want.

Aaron Pogue said...

When I'm warning new writers about this phenomenon, I always compare it to parenting teenagers. Because, yeah, I think it's not only a good thing, but a necessary thing for characters to come alive and start acting independently.

That said, as the writer, you've got an obligation to make sure that decision-making takes them where they need to go. You've got to foster it, but also to guide it. It's a delicate balance, but when you get it right, you get incredible characters.

Holly Bodger said...

Ooo, the Frankenstein debate! Like others, I control my characters up to a certain point, but when they take on active personalities in my story, changing them feels like murder. But I suppose that's why they tell us to kill our darlings...before they kill us first!

Raval911 said...

Ultimately, writing is a dialogue: the characters give input, the story arc gives its own input, the author mediates between the various factors...pulls harmony out of the dissonance, has veto power, etc. But yes, ultimately, the story usually wins the day.

Mia said...

Pffft, do I own my characters? As if they'd let me....but I don't think I compromise so much between plot and characters because it's a dynamic relationship. Sure arguments happen, but at the end of the day I'm the one doing all the hard work so I usually win...It also depends how strong they are, my current Main Character could yell the antlers off a stag if she needed to so she gets listened to quite a bit.


On the other hand, I totally agree with the sentiment that if a tale has no voice, I isolate it and leave it to think about what it has done wrong in a dark corner of my hard-drive. If a character won't tell me what happened, I see no reason to write it.


And so I have to finish by agreeing that the best characters really are the ones that unexpectedly wander off scene when you're right in the middle of getting them to do something. Often they'll walk away and inadvertently stumble into an even better plot than you had originally planned. :~)

NickerNotes said...

Sometimes characters are compliant, sometimes not. I have a couple I've tried to kill off or make them traitors, but they refused. Sometimes, I am writing dialog, I am astounded by what they say. I always think, "Wow! I never knew that about you." I think it makes them more robust. Dick and Jane always did exactly as they were told. They were interchangeable, flat and boring. I wish Jane had said, just once, "No, Dick, I do not want to run today. I will climb that tree instead."

Reesha said...

That's a good piont. Balance is very important.

I usually attempt to achieve balance by looking at character motivation, looking at where it doesn't fit in with the plot, and then creating a reason why the character would be motivated to fit into the plot in such a way.

This can range anywhere to suddenly creating a girlfriend or boyfriend for the character, killing off someone the character cares about, getting them fired, getting them hired, etc.

Usually by the third draft, the balance has worked itself out and I no longer have to fight with my characters to get them to adhere to the plot.

John M. Baron said...

My characters run the show, but they are most definitely my characters, and we get along pretty well. I ask nicely if they'll go in the general direction I'm expecting, and they almost always say yes, but often not quite the way I'd expected.

I've always wondered how this correlates with plotter/pantser tendencies in the author. I'm definitely on the pantser side (though I hate that term!).

JL Hartfield said...

I like to think of it as a board of directors. You sit down with your characters and they tell you what needs to happen, but ultimately, you have the final say. If you let the characters take over, eventually you'll get booted out for not doing your job and the whole thing will collapse.

Linda Godfrey said...

As in the old Outer Limits show, I control the vertical! I control the horizontal! And yet the characters still fiddle with the dial at times. If it improves the picture, I let them.

Stina Kanaris said...

I have been guilty of letting my characters take over, but have learned to "tame" them.

Just like LilySea, sometimes I will write down notes and actions that I would love to have them do or say, but just wouldn't work in the direction of THIS particular story. Then, I will go back to them later for another book.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

My characters have to come alive for the story to come alive. But I still own them because I have the power to crush their bodies and spirits and ultimately kill them if it suits my vision for the story. However, they have the power to haunt me, day and night, not only with how far I'll go to push them into conflicts, danger, and despair, but also with whether it's all worth it in the end, if the story rises to the level that justifies their struggles. If I fail as a writer, they remain alive to taunt me. For more than 20 years in the case of three characters.

Ian Wood said...

I'm currently working on a project written in the first person. Every time the work becomes a slog, it's because I've lost track of the character's voice, and am writing more as *myself* than the character. It's been an interesting process, almost an acting job. Because the narrative is so highly dependent upon a unique voice, the entire thing fails if I don't get it absolutely correct. There are other characters in the story, but because they're interpreted through the prism of the narrator's perception, I have a bit more leeway with them. They've got certain things they're supposed to do to meet the demands of the story, but *how* they go about doing those things is much more of a discovery process.

That said: I've got a story that needs telling. If I've created a character that absolutely can't do what needs to be done because it wouldn't be consistent with the character's identity, then I give that job to a character that can. Again, the acting metaphor. My characters can go off and be whoever they want to be, but I've hired them for a certain role and if they can't get the job done they can go wait tables until a role opens up in a short story or something...

ajcastle said...

Usually I have a plot sketched out (in my head--I can't outline to save my life), and then I put characters into it and let them lead me through it. I've tried 'forcing' characters to do certain things, only to have them rear up and refuse to let me move on until I 'correct' how I've wronged them. It is a relationship, and the characters get very vocal if you try to force something on them that isn't right. In a way, it kind of makes us authors sound a bit crazy...haha.

DG said...

@ Scott - I agree with you.

Nathan: great topic but I gotta tell you, I read through the comments and now I'm a bit freaked out.

Maybe I'm not as tortured by my characters as some, but I believe story is king and the characters are there to make the story work well.

I guess if a character trait helps me to improve the story I'll of course use it.

Marsha Sigman said...

You are asking this under the assumption that writers are sane, when obviously we are all borderline schizophrenic.

We admit to hearing voices and writing thier stories. If we didn't own them or control them to some degree...then we would probably be in an institution somewhere.

jmartinlibrary said...

I feel so non-awesome after reading the comments.

With characters, I'm in charge. I make the characters up right? Sure, sometimes I weird ideas about changing them, but it's a totally non-magical process.

Does that make me lame?

Lily Cate said...

I've found that, if after a while, the character I've written just doesn't fit with what the story requires, well, then maybe they belong to a different story.

Chantal said...

I write up to a point (usually 10K), then I plot the ending (usually the last 10K). From there, I know the point of the story and I know what to foreshadow--and where. The middle is way easy after that, and the characters can control how they get there, but I already know where they're going, so I'm in control.

Kimber An said...

I think it depends on if you're a character-driven writer.

My characters hunt me down, club me over the head, and drag me off to their caves kicking and screaming.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I love to READ books in which the characters do the same.

I don't care how awesome the book is otherwise. If I can't get behind a character's eyes, it's going to the used bookstore for credit.

Liesl said...

I remember Orson Scott Card talking about something similar. He said he always hated giving critiques to new writers because he would ask, "What else could happen in this story?" And they would always respond, "Nothing. That's how the story goes!"

As if they didn't make it up.

It's fun to allow a character to seemingly drive your story in unexplored terrain. A lot of awesome creativity can come of that. I balance this in the revision process with tight observation of what's happening and why. Does it make sense? Is there something else that could happen that would make more sense or take the story in a more exciting/fulfilling direction?

L-Plate Author said...

I'm a planner. Beginning, middle end, then split into rough chapters where the hooks could be, with bullet points only in each one. I expect that the characters will add lots of bullet points to the journey towards the end and I love it when I have to add in extra chapters to accommodate this. But the ending is always the same. It's the bits in between, the character's growth, that I let them loose a little.

Once I start a draft, I draft a quarter of the book and then comes the one and only read through until the end. This give me a sense of what the characters are turning out to be like. I never change them, but at least I know them by then.

Mary said...

I see my story as the script. Sometimes the characters improvise but in the end they have to stick to the main story. I liken a writer to an actor on stage. They have to get into the character's mindset and skin to move the story in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I think a lot of writers talk like this as a way of trying to appear legit.

It's like, "See, my characters are so real that I don't even think of a plot. They just tell me. Aren't I so a real writer?"

D. Ann Graham said...

If they don't measure up to the standard, they're out. That isn't to say the standard of the industry, but rather the standard of that particular story. Highly entertaining to let characters go off on tangents, but if their little scenarios don't further the action, advance the plot, or define charater in some way, then they must be forever relegated to the mists.

I find it interesting that Steinbeck admitted to writing scenes that were for himself, alone, and never intended to be included in the final manuscript. They simply kept him interested and stimulated enough to keep up the flow of originality. I'm sure they were all as beautifully written as the rest of his work. However, it is a tribute to his professionalism that they are not there, and maybe even one of the reasons he is still great.

Ann

Jille said...

1st draft: let the characters go hog-wild
2nd draft: lasso them in

Marilyn Peake said...

Great question. I’m currently experiencing both situations with my current science fiction novel, GODS IN THE MACHINE. I tend to be an "out of the mist" writer, allowing my stories to seemingly arise out of a mist, rather than a writer who works from an outline. I usually know how my story will end before I start writing it, and I outline in my head as I go along. As my characters develop, the middle part of the story often takes different paths than the way I had originally planned to reach the end. For example, in GODS IN THE MACHINE, a poverty-stricken Mexican child is killed by bullies. I really didn’t want that to happen, and I sat and pondered it for quite a while before I wrote it; but it seemed like a natural development in the story, so I went in that direction. My test for whether or not to change direction in my stories is exactly how you described it: make sure the change is the result of "being true to the logic of a situation."

That said, in working with Editor Alan Rinzler, I immediately accepted his suggestion to get rid of certain characters and develop a few entirely new ones in order to increase the political thriller aspects of GODS IN THE MACHINE. He suggested, for example, removing a young woman who works in a bakery and adding a Senator because the political figure would be a lot more relevant to the futuristic government that is central to the plot. I immediately saw that Alan Rinzler’s suggestion would make the novel stronger, and I’m more than willing to remove some characters and create a few entirely new ones to accomplish that. He also suggested that I outline all the major revisions, and I’m doing that as well. As I write the outline, I’ve also been brainstorming ideas for additional futuristic technology to add to the novel.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Maybe the path the characters are trying to lead you down is one that needs to be explored, or maybe not. Can't really know that unless you walk with them a while.

Personally, I feel that as the characters come to life they help me come to grips with the true meaning of the story. I might start out with a Thesis in mind, but they help shed light on the subconscious elements, which, when brought to the surface, add an additional layer of depth that might not have been there if I had attempted to control them.

Terry said...

My protagonist and I argue a lot. I cave more than he does.

But, I must admit, I always end up liking where he takes me.

Malin said...

Just want to share an experience of not following a characters voice.

I began a novel with a very sassy girl as main character. I then posted an excerpt (pretty much a standalone chapter) in a creative writing group. Several people told me they found her arrogant and unlikable. I continued the novel, toning her down and making her more amiable.

85 000 words later and on a 2d edit, I suddenly realise the novel wasn't working. No way. It refused, it bucked and it flaunted intangible holes I could only sense and not explain.

Why? Because the new Jessica wouldn't do what I forced her to do to fulfill the plot (in fact, she wouldn't do anything, making the story just run out in the sand). The old, sassy Jessica didn't need complicated ad-hoc solutions to do what had to be done.

So, my warning is this. Don't fall for group pressure. Your characters are your friends. People might not like them - you might not like them at times - but you must stand by them and let them be themselves.

Rick Daley said...

My characters own the first drafts, I own the revisions.

Other Lisa said...

What Rick Daley said.

onelowerlight said...

I find that the best way to make sure the story doesn’t stall in the middle is to make sure that the beginning is absolutely solid. Usually, I’ll start with only a vague idea of where I want to go with the plot, but if the beginning is sound, it usually falls into place like a line of dominoes. To have a sound beginning, the story question / main story arc has to be introduced in a compelling yet understandable way, and the characters’ motivations need to be well thought out. If the beginning is strong, I’ve found that I can let the characters run with the story and everything will still fall into place—it might end differently than what I’d initially expected, but it will still be a strong, coherent story.

Henri said...

And then there's the "Purple Rose of Cairo", a great movie, where the characters step right out of the screen and into the action.

Josin L. McQuein said...

It's like Michelangelo's words on sculpting: Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

Every idea has story inside it, and every story characters. It's the task of the writer to discover them.

When you start a story, you have an idea in mind. As the story progresses, you assign the characters traits and actions that make up their personalities. You give them their own voices and histories. You make them living things with a beginning and an end so that their life began before the first chapter and goes on after "the end" .

When a character gets to that point, there's less give in their actions. What might have seemed plausible or passable two chapters earlier, isn't anymore. Two chapters ago you didn't know that you character was afraid of water because their sister held them under for three minutes when they were kids. Now that you know that, it doesn't make sense for them to be blase about diving.

Each layer adds hurts and victories that make up the whole, and deviating from the whole will "feel" wrong. Just as if you served BBQ at a vegan dinner. You know it doesn't fit with the people involved.

If your character develops into a risk taker, he's going to take risks. If he's trying to save his family, he's going to take a lot of risks. If he knows he's got two months to live - there's nothing he won't do because there's no reason to think he won't be dead soon anyway. It doesn't make sense for a character like that to be overly conservative in his choices.

Susan Kelley said...

I decide the end of my characters' journey but let them decide how they're going to get there. Sometimes it's not the path I'd pre-selected for them. That's fine as long as they end where I've planned for them to end.

Cheree said...

Interesting post. I usually let my characters make their own decisions, but if it gets too far from the story I know when to put my foot down.

Ren Black said...

I just like to let them think they own the show. I'm open to their ideas, negotiations and even compromises, but in the end, I hold the ace because I know them, better than they know themselves. They are free to drive, but I own the road. I know what they want and what they fear and I exploit that, especially in revisions.

Tori said...

When I get an idea I try and develop my main characters as much as I possibly can before I really get writing. I like to know who they are before i try and make them do stuff. They still surprise me though. My current WIP wasn't suppose to have a sequal, but the antagonist decided that she wasn't going down without dragging as many people with her as possible... and so we go.

Munk said...

I'm not a big fan of "slice of life" stories. In other words I enjoy painting a crazy circumstance and imagining how my characters would react. I have to admit that sometimes real life creeps in... I have been grumpy at work lately and poor Booker is taking the brunt of my mood... on the bright side, it keeps me from kicking the dog.

Dave said...

My characters can dictate how they respond to situations and events, but I decide what those situations and events are. That's what makes it interesting.

The Red Angel said...

Good post! To be honest, I am in control most of the time when it comes to writing my novels and stories, though at times my characters will acknowledge me of a brilliant idea they have or a certain line that, once I realize what it is, MUST be used because it is so good. :P

I think there is a mutual relationship...I am in charge most of the time, but my characters know they can always come to me if they have some ideas to twist and turn the plot. :P

Anita Saxena said...

It doesn't matter how hard I try to outline, the characters always take charge. Sometimes it makes sense. Sometimes it doesn't. But I just go with the flow.

Helen said...

Some stories are more plot driven; other are more character driven. That's a choice the writer must make at some point, and in that way the writer is in control. If the writer doesn't make that choice, she'll end up with a mess.

Michael A. Emeritz said...

Quite an interesting topic. I like to let my characters take control as much as possible, but the only place I allow this is in special journals that are separate from the actual work. A lot of times a characters dialogue will come to me when I least expect it. It will have nothing to do with any scene I've written, nor will it always apply to anything else I have planned, but I still write it out. I have to. A lot of the time I wont use half of the work that comes to me this way, but that other half is priceless.

I'm a lot like most here in that I like to allow my characters to persuade me in different directions, but ultimately I am the man behind the wheel, and I know where I'm taking them. If they wouldn't normally go there, then I know to write about how much of impact the chosen direction is having on them.

Actually a road-trip is a nice analogy; everyone wants to stop at different places along the way, but eventually you have to get where your going. I think it's important to know where I'm taking a story early enough so I can stay the course no matter what happens.

Anonymous said...

Scotch helps.

Vacuum Queen said...

I have always found it odd when writers say they just sat down at their computer and let the story take them away and go where it wanted to. WTH?! For me, I map it out, and map it out, and map it out, and on and on. Then I stand back from it and try to imagine living it to make sure what's happening would really happen...or at least would make sense if it happened.

But I'm in charge. Maybe too much.

Jil said...

I see life as a pyramid. One thing leads to another, then another until the peak is reached. I set my characters a beginning and a destination, then it seems a natural progression with their own personalities flavoring the climb. I think they become more like my children. When I sent Mystical Wood off to my, then, agent in New York, it was winter and I felt terrible sending my characters off, alone, into that cold, alien city!

Stacy said...

This is a very interesting post and I'm really glad you made it. Here's my situation--When I finished my first story (over 100 pages), I couldn't eat or sleep because of the ending. Not because the characters were wrong, but I actually found myself in a state of depression because the story wasn't resolved. After I went back and resolved it, I felt much better. Where my story started out to be a "Woe is me", it ended up being a sort of life lesson. I like where the characters took me. I lived in their world as I wrote. On days where I worked on happy times (romantic) I was happy (romantic), but those days where I had to delve into the blackness that happens in their lives, I was not happy (I will even admit to crying for them).
The thing is, I wanted that emotion in my story. It's supposed to be a deeply emotional experience and I wanted the reader to have that experience.
I call myself a method writer. I become a part of the world I'm writing about. Am I nuts? Seriously. I don't want to end up on the wrong side of sanity, but at the same time I want to pour my everything into what I'm writing.
This story hasn't been published (which may be my first clue on the whole nuts thing), but before I continue writing, I thought a good opinion might be worth outing myself for.

Joseph L. Selby said...

I understand your question, but I would use different words. A story is both plot and character and only when the two are properly balanced does the story work. Now, I said balanced. Balanced does not necessarily mean equal.

I perceive a plot and envision the characters that participate in it. If a character's persona is incapable of participating in that plot, then the story dictates that either the plot change or the character not participate. I won't shoehorn a character into something (s)he wouldn't really do just so my plot can go the way I want it. I find that to be disingenuous and an erosion of the character I was working to build.

So, if things are out of balance, I figure out which one tipped the scale. Was it the character? And if so, what did the character do to change the balance? Can it be corrected or does the character have to go? Or was it the plot that changed things? Do I need to change it and if so, is this change better (for me, the change in plot usually leads to a better story).

For my current ms that I finished on Tuesday, one of the main characters was introduced only because I was introducing her twin sister as a character development for one of the (at the time) main characters. She was getting an apprenticeship that was letting her move out of the poor side of town. Not to be left behind, the twin finagled her way into the mix. I wasn't planning on that. Where does that go? Well, in fact, it went to change the entire conclusion of the book and the story is much better for it.

Mattyd said...

My characters own me, and thank God they do, because I never have the vaguest sense of plot when I start a book. I get a character in my mind and simply start writing. Their life turns out to be the plot.

Sounds bizarre, I know. Three books later and I still think it's the damnedest thing.

-Matthew Dicks

Leona said...

I'm definitely a panster and my characters are in control (until revisions :)

In fact, I had a character show up out of NOWHERE and he is now a cornerstone to the whole series. Where in the hell he came from, I have no idea. When he was first introduced, I wasn't even allowed to see his face but his character was strong.

I think as one who writes with only a general idea of where it HAS to go, I give more leeway to having my characters be in control. I've tried being the one in total control, but then all the characters all sound the same. *sigh* as a control freak it can be very frustrating to not have a character do what you tell it to do. I've tried forcing sometimes, but then the story sucks, so what
s the point?

In fact, during a revision, I had to pull out a whole story line, the original story line, because I tried to force all the characters to do what I wanted them to do and not what they wanted to do.

So, I guess it boils down to the characters drive the story for first draft and I get to do the revisions inn order to get the strongest story out of me and my characters.

Doing the "extra scene writing" can definitely help the strength of the characters and don't necessarily have to be in the main printed story. It just helps clarify their characteristics in your mind.

AjFrey said...

My work is more character driven than plot driven, so I have to listen to them. Knowing how they would handle a situation is crucial, and knowing what they flat out will not do is imperative. Whole square peg in a round hole thing.

But on the other side I know when to reign them in. One character in particular I have to keep on a short leash. I mean if he had his way, he'd spend 4 days straight in a strip club blitzed out of mind - and no one wants to read that. Ok, well, most people don't want to read that.

Crystal said...

I actually recently experienced this with my main character in a radio production I'm writing. I had all of the plot planned, but then when she came to life the situations I had planned in my head completely changed. I tend to try and balance plot and character, though lean more towards the character side as opposed to the plot side. As an example, I showed a scene to my critique partner, and they said that it didn't seem logical for the main to act that way in the situation. But when I looked at it again I had to keep it as is because that is the way she would have reacted in that situation. That one scene completely changed the chain of events that occured (but not any of the plot elements). So, in a sense the character did change the plot, but not overwelmingly so.

Anonymous said...

This topic is exactly the inspiration for the he novel I am writing. It addresses the war between authors and characters. When the characters hate the way the plot is going, they try to give their author writer's block. (And sometimes succeed.)

I usually know there where story needs to go, but I've written myself into corners when the characters don't agree. I once had a character hesitate who didn't want to hesitate and I couldn't write for three days.

Nicole said...

I use the Snowflake method by Randy Ingermanson. It helps really develop characters and let them roam free withing the parameters of your plot. I currently have some rowdy characters on my hands but as long as they stay in the lines I let them go with it. I am enjoying their antics :)

AlongTheBridge said...

You say that story comes first, which is very interesting to me. It reminds me of the first sentence in David Copperfield. If the author has truly created a worthwhile character, and that character is the protagonist, then if the character refuses to carry out the plot, either that plot or that character must fundamentally change. Unless it's a secondary character, I always find it more rewarding to follow the character than stick to the plot. If the character leads me to a dead end, then I can always go back to the original plot outline and change whatever it was in the original character that made the plot incompatible.

Kathryn Magendie said...

For me, character is everything, so my characters get to do whatever they want and I let them. They're smarter than I am, and more interesting.

My Semblance of Sanity said...

I actually just had this happen...in the opposite way.

A charcter fell into my head like I bumped into her on the sidewalk.

I wrote 4 short blurbs from her POV and fell in love with her.

I have since put her "away" and banged out an outline for a YA novel b/c I knew what situations would push her to the limits and what would help her grow by the end of the book.

I will soon (after everything gels in my head for a couple days)go back and plug her into the outline and WRITE WRITE WRITE.

I am sure I may have to change some things...but this is too fun to ignore a muse like that!

Enjoyed this post.

Trisha Wooldridge said...

Good question... In what I've written, the characters drive the story, and then it's my job to make it make sense. I have yet to have a time when they have taken a road I hadn't planned and then the story became better.

Also, I think it's important to keep in mind the drafting process. In the rough draft, no matter how you've outlined, you should take the opportunity to explore this world - and who better to guide you than your characters? Once you've gotten that sh*tty first draft down, then - then, by Jove - you take out the editor hat and say, "That was a great detour, but we can fix this bridge right now and cut 5,000 words right there." You know where that detour and path took you, it makes a great addition to the Worldbuilding Bible, but by the time you're editing you should also know the world enough play DPW and make more streamlined plot roads.

Nick said...

I am God. That simple. I bear in mind what is or is not "in character" for a character, even pieces of their character which may not be made plain in this particular piece; not because of poor writing, but because there is simply nothing in the narrative to bring it up. But at the end of the day, it is I who created them and I who ends them. If the bank is blown to smithereens with my protagonist inside, well, he's shit out of luck. And of course, never let the characters be aware of your existence. It's best if you leave them all atheist/agnostic. No constant nagging in the middle of the night when you're just trying to enjoy a nice sleep.

Yessir, being God is a fine feeling. Now excuse me while I go sow havoc in fictional Austria.

Lin said...

If I have created a character who isn't able to support my plot, then one of two things is true: I have not thought the character out sufficiently, which for me usually involves an entire backstory that probably may not appear in the finished work, or I haven't discovered the true impetus of my character - which will, if discovered, inevitably change my plot. In either case, more behind-the-scenes work usually solves the problem.

Once in a great while, a character will veer off course because he or she is so involving that an entire story should be crafted around him or her. I need a "smaller" person to fill the role the big one's co-opted. ... I have no idea how or why that works.

Laurel said...

I've had this happen. The characters went union on me and derailed the plot. I didn't let them hold the plot hostage, however. I performed a lobotomy on one of them and he filled my needs nicely.

Of course, as a retrospective lobotomy it took a lot more time to fix him up all the way through, but I can't have somebody all of a sudden grow a spine or become a coward if they exhibited no such tendencies previously. There has to be some logic to it.

It's good to be the king. You just have to remember that the things you've already written are not actually historical facts, but in fact figments of your imagination. That's the hard part, I think. In all seriousness, I get really attached to the events and people that pop out of my head so it's hard to let go of the way I thought things were.

You need to know where the story is going and make sure your cast of characters can allow for the exposition.

Irene said...

I interview authors on the radio and always marvel at those who tell me that they have a beginning and an end and everything in between is dictated by their characters. Even structured authors like Colleen McCullough (Thorn Birds, etc.) say they don't know what their characters will do. Wait a minute, I say, you're the writer, you created the characters and they have to do what you say. Not so, says McCullough, sometimes I kill off a character who comes back and says I don't want to be dead. Huh? Well, it makes the writing life more interesting for the writer, not knowing exactly what comes next, no?

Anonymous said...

I'm a new writer and this was a very helpful discussion. Thank you all.

It seems to me that with 6 billion corporeal people on earth and with each of us capable of imagining a couple hundred more, the author has to set the capacity and entry requirements for the book.

If the character isn't getting the story told, or developing the plot, there isn't room for the character no matter how entertaining or compelling they turned out to be.

I know the story I'm going to tell before I start.

Who goes along for the ride and where they sit depends on how well they contribute to telling it, or how much help they are in plot development and resolution.

I think I'll stick with that.

Thanks again.

Rogue Novelist said...

The characters in my manuscripts always write the stories. Their voices and actions usually shock if not surprise me. They control and take me places I've never been, as well as challenging and synthesizing sub-plots and extenuating circumstances that bring the story to fruition.

Long live independent and challenging characters.

Linda Adams said...

When I start planning my story (such as the planning goes), I focus on plot and nailing down the story. The characters are pretty much placeholders at this point--don't even have names. Once first contact is made with the story, I start tossing in characters as I need them. I literally came up with a main character by going, "Okay, I need a police officer in this scene." Quick look up online for a name. Done.

From there, it's like there are two paths in the novel. The first path is the story itself, and the second one is the characters. They work together to get where they are going, but neither can take over the direction of the book.

Victoria Dixon said...

If the character is really alive and plugged into your novel, they shouldn't walk off anyway. They should be involved in what's going on.
That said, if they come to life on me like that I return in the following drafts and determine what happened and how the other characters need to follow suit. I try to keep the process organic - how else will they come to life? ;D (Sorry - couldn't resist.)

wendy said...

Hmmm, well-thought out question. The sense of story is always stronger, for me, than my characters, so I might err on the side of putting words in their mouths rather than the situation where those characters take charge. I always have a strong idea of what their role will be in contributing to the story idea so my characters have never taken flight that much. I'm not sure if this has been to the detriment of the story.

But if the story comes first, and your understanding of what you want to achieve with this story is strong, then I think this might prohibit the characters taking control. I'm not really sure, I must admit. However, I do think that a really strong, original character can be a very attractive addition to any story and help add versimilitude for the reader.

Perhaps different types of stories depend more heavily on their characters than others; I mean, characters that are the strongest element of that story. The imparting of meaning and information has always been the strongest element of my stories to-date, I think.

Daren said...

Story comes first. Characters only react to the situations that you put them in. Those reactions might end up being unexpected, but the situations, challenges, and obstacles that are presented are entirely up to the writer.

Peter Dudley said...

Characters are characters and will act in the right way when properly motivated. If characters must act a certain way to get the plot moving in the right direction, yet they want to do something else, then it's easy for me as the author to change the conditions affecting their motives. Sometimes this means going back to the beginning and putting the dueling pistols above the fireplace or a river in the middle of the city or something, and sometimes it means a sudden thundershower or a death in the family or whatnot.

While characters should always behave in the way those characters should behave, we as authors have the authority, and the responsibility, to give them the proper circumstances that will drive the story in the direction we want.

Johan said...

i cant belive you have to read over a thousand of queries a day. dosnt that get tiresome

Tracy Hahn-Burkett said...

It's a two-way relationship. My characters and I get to know each other, consult each other and argue. Sometimes they win, sometimes I do. We've even disappointed each other and then gotten over it.

That's what it's like with real people, right?

(And aspiring_x, your comment made me smile.)

Michelle McLean said...

My characters tend to be in charge during the first draft. Once the revision stage starts, I take over :)

Chase March said...

I don't see why the characters shouldn't take over.

I don't think authors need to be afraid of that happening. Sometimes it's good to let someone else drive for a while. In the end, it's still our creation and hopefully a great story. If not, then we can polish it as need be.

Lee Thompson said...

My characters are in control of what they do, but I try to throw as many roadblocks in their path as I can.

Seamus said...

Nice post. Not to be too philosophical, but isn’t life the throwing together of characters in random situations and the playing out of their unique chemistry? Certainly I find writing short stories like writing improv. But I get your point. You have to get somewhere with your story. I like what Scott said (above), “I read a quote once and sadly I can't remember who said it. It went: ‘Don't bully your characters or they'll fix you for good.’ The meaning being, if you bend things too much to suit your plot, your story will fall apart." There is such a symbiosis between character and plot that the story isn’t right if the character takes it someplace it wasn’t meant to go, or the plot takes the character someplace they shouldn't follow. For longer pieces, I’ve let go of my “open mic night” approach, because of the need to plan this inter-dependency.

christina said...

agreed. Let your Character's shine!

D. G. Hudson said...

I own my characters, I control the story, I control the horizontal. However the vertical is flexible and sometimes the characters lead me via the dialogue to a different path than I intended.

I never forget that I am the puppet master.

Guinevere said...

My writing tends to be very character-based. I've altered what I imagined as the storyline because of a character, but I don't feel it in any way damaged the story, either. My characters are the story -- I'm not going to go wrong by being true to them, even if I adapt the plot.

Kaitlyne said...

I tend to think in terms of what needs to happen, and then backtrack to what it's going to take for that to happen with the characters. Yes, they sometimes still surprise me, usually in ways that turn out awesome, but for the most part I know what's going to happen and can say, "what else has to occur to lead this character in this direction?"

Amie Boudreau said...

I completely relate to what you've posted here about Characters taking on a life of their own. This is one reason I outline my plot pretty much before I even start writing the story. I get an idea of where I want it to start, peak and end. It isn't necessarily set in stone, but it gives me a guide to stick to and remind myself where I am headed and want to get to.

Funny thing though I thought I'd share. When I am really engrossed in writing my novel, I dream about my characters, mainly my main character and last time he was arguing with me in my dream about how I portrayed him. Too bizarre and funny.

Ashley A. said...

1. I love to write character-driven fiction.
2. I read passages weeks later that I don't remember ever having written. And they are really fucking brilliant.
3. I write separate sections upon sections from different characters' perspectives that seem to miraculously and seamlessly flow one into the other.
4. I understand that the subconscious and unconscious are more powerful than we are willing to admit, and we are living in a time of deep fracture and denial.
5. Sometimes, when I start with plot, I can write thousands of words from various points of view, kind of like an audition, until I find the right character to tell the story.
6. My characters are my bitches. But they are also ME. I love them, but I want them to do what's best. For me.
7. I own my characters. OWN them. But I'm a good listener, and I want to write good books that people will want to read. And, uh, pay for.
8. Writing fiction is a balancing act between the conscious and unconscious. But consciousness must win.

Samantha Clark said...

I tend to write more plot-driven stories, but they're still about the characters. And for me, my characters and I always seem to be pretty much in sync, at least, we were with my most recent novel.

I think it's important for writers to listen to their characters, to try things when their characters want to go in other directions, but to know when to say, you know what, that's not really working. And usually, if the character wants to go in a different direction from the story, then the character might not be the right one for this particular story.

There is always a balance between the character and story, but ultimately, I think if you've got the right character and story, they'll walk the path together; if not, there will be problems and you have to adjust one or the other.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious.

When a character in control of the manuscript dies, who gets the flowers?

Christine said...

I like to have a framework, but this time the characters are driving the story and I'm not always comfortable about the direction. However, whenever I try to rope them down, they balk and rebel and get all... well... you MUST write this ... and don't worry about our marketability, too.

Yeah, that's how nutty it is for me right now. Gotta write it knowing it might not be marketable. Just gotta be true to them.

David T said...

Thanks for putting this into words -- I think you're spot on when you talk about writers 'responding to the internal logic' of characters and story. In all my writing I've never had characters feel to me like they're 'real' -- like they have choices. And I so often read writers saying that their characters come in and do something, or tell them something, or refuse to behave in a particular way -- there are plenty of examples just in this thread. I've started to believe I don't have 'it' (whatever 'it' is) because I've never felt this sense of autonomy about any character I've created. Have I not got enough emotional investment in my writing because I don't believe (or behave as if I believe) my characters have minds of their own?

I've always enjoyed it when something inside me suggests a certain action could fit in a story, or two things in a story connect for me and suggest that something different might be better. But these are just inspiration; I've never been able to believe anything other than the literal reality that my stories are entirely figments of my own imagination. I like how you've expressed it -- so I'm going to hang on to that.

G said...

I'm not sure if I've ever owned my characters for any of the stories I've written.

I usually start with a idea for a plot and usually develop a character for the plot. I make it as strong or as weak (ebb and flow I would suppose) as the developing storyline calls for it.

The one solid thing I make sure not to, is to have the character (and myself) go off on a tangent to where there is no hope for return.

Most of my characters are not quite 100% products of my imagination, but more 75%/25% with the 25% being the personalities of people I know in real life.

Jewels Diva said...

Reminds me of the song - You're Nothing Without Me - from the musical - City of Angels.

Lisa Melts Her Penn said...

I love this post!

Linnea said...

I know where I want my characters to go. They can get there pretty much as they like but I'll nudge them back if they go too far off track.

Sarah said...

I like how you describe a character's life in terms of the author's knowledge of the character, Nathan. (Reminds me of how we can often predict the behavior of people we know well.)

In my own experience, wonkiness between characters and plot is my own fault. Every time I've taken the weeks or months to hammer something out, I've been pleased with both aspects.

Still, I do love my characters! A little while ago, I'd been working on a scene and discovered someone new. I didn't realize how real he was to me till I almost introduced him to a friend.

Good thing I caught myself in time... : )

Victoria said...

I like to give my characters freedom in he first draft and then do what I like in the second and subsequent drafts. It means a heck of a lot of editing but I get to know my characters really well in that first draft and often find that it really helps me strengthen their voice.

Yvonne Isaak-Andrews said...

I've found that the point when the characters essentially take over is when the author has found the character's "voice." Once that has been discovered, the conversations and behaviors become more natural, making the writing itself better.

I help my husband edit his novels, and I get the manuscript after he does the first round of edits. Almost always, the first few chapters have whole sections rewritten to match the voices of the characters, which had been discovered further into the writing of the novel.

In one novel, he ended up rewriting the entire beginning. In his words, "After having worked with these characters for so long by that point, and getting to know their personalities, that chapter essentially wrote itself." And I have to say that it is a very well-written chapter!

wannabee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sharon said...

I love this post! It makes me realize that (Whew!) I’m not crazy after all!

There are times when I'm writing that my characters demand this or that--my brain won't rest until I give it to them, but not necessarily in my actual manuscript. I’ll whip out a page or two--or three or ten--separate from the real story and let them (and me) run amuck. Everyone gets it out of their system so I can go back and work on the real story. Sometimes it turns out so darned good that I’ll file it back and use it later. It's a nice diversion, helps me understand the characters a little better and I still have control. It also keeps writers block at bay.

Tonya said...

Just like any other aspect of the writing process, I think that it involves a fair amount of give and take. I try to keep in mind that all stories evolve unexpectedly, while they're being written, I should never expect them to progress or end the way I originally plotted.

Usually these changes--especially the major ones, are character driven. New characters appear or minor characters take on bigger roles. Even so, I've reached points in stories where a "favorite" character must meet their end, though unplanned. If it serves the plot well, then the plot changes for that reason too.

I think it's fine to follow one's "muse" and allow a story to evolve unexpectedly but without losing coherence.

Healing said...

I think characters and the story occupy different parts of brain. Characters arise from the limbic system the primitive one, driven by emotions and the story is the product of the high-class prefrontal cortex which rules judgment.

In that sense, fight between characters and the plot is the fight between emotions and the reasoning. And I handle it in the same way I handle the same fight in my real life.

Karen said...

I love being able to talk about this without it sounding like a mental disorder in need of medication.

I let my characters lead the way within the constructs of the story I've created. This is the situation and they need to figure out what to do about it. If they step out of bounds, I pull them back in.

emmiefisher said...

I like to let my characters lead the story. Once I get about about halfway through, I start to understand where the characters are leading me and then I can gently nudge them closer and closer to that goal. I can go back later and cut out the excess and clean up all the subplots that appear and make sure they also get resolved fully in the second half.

Wildheit said...

My characters definitely own me, but then I own the body that does the typing, so no harm done.

It is a relationship as any other, though there's a higher danger of unconditional love since they're a part of me. But regularly I'll step back and wonder whether I would allow them to speak to me if we just met, like strangers, on a bus, in a bar... It helps restraining the unconditional affair if you find out their weaknesses.

When I get annoyed with them because they become unruly, I tell him/her to shut up.
Doesn't always help, and they will beg me to listen.
Sometimes I will let them argue their point, but always after removing my fingers from the keyboard. And I only put the fingers back to the keyboard when a) I've squashed their rebellion with my solid counter-arguments, or b) their arguments win me over and I allow them some leeway.

Diana said...

I agree with jmartinlibrar. Reading all the other comments kinda makes me feel like I'm doing it wrong or something. I own the characters and plot, but I'm often surprised during re-reads when something just doesn't work. I re-write and then move forward. It's organic but I'm definitely the driving.

Nona said...

I wrote a plot outline but I also did dozens of pages of character study at the same time. When you know them that well they stay on point.

elementalmoon said...

I often feel like my characters are alive to me. I can sit down and be surprised by what they have to say when I interview them for a character sketch or other exercise. I find out a lot of interesting things in that way. However, the story itself is mine. Their backgrounds influence how it develops, but nine times out of ten, I'm the one calling the shots on where the next step is. That being said, when I'm flowing, sometimes the characters take over without my notice. One, a minor character, inserted himself so strongly into the story that I was reluctant to cut him out. But he isn't necessary to the over all plot, and after careful thinking, I cut his POV out. If I hadn't it would have changed the whole story. I couldn't write without the characters, but sometimes it's easier to have them silent.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Right now I have a character in such denial that he refuses to think much. I have to literally force him to THINK about stuff he's trying to deny. He's got a painful history, so there's that. But he's definitely a doer, not a thinker.

Candy said...

What a great question! The main character in one of my books went and fell in love with absolutely the wrong character. At first I fought it, but eventually let her have her way (what else can you do, really?). Seriously, though, her instincts (my subconsious?) were spot on, and that shift in perspective made the book far more complex and interesting. Sometimes, the character knows what's best!

K Simmons said...

I've actually been playing a lot with this question over the past month, so it's interesting to see someone else's take. I've come to the conclusion that while my characters are their own people and I can't control them per se, I can control the situations I put them in. So when I'm having difficulty getting a character to do what's needed for the flow of the story, it's my responsibility as a writer to change the sequence of events in such a way that brings about the character response that will move the story forward according to plan.

Dominique said...

I've learned the hard way that forcing characters to do things just doesn't work. It feels forced and ugly and uninteresting. So, I guess the writers have to share the power. They tell me what they want to do, I tell them what makes sense at all, and we find the plan that works.

catwoods said...

This is an interesting question. I start with a general premise and ending, then let my character control the journey. As long as they logically get to the ultimate destination I don't care if they decide a three-legged poodle should have a pivotal role in the plot or if MC's best friend suddenly turns into a kleptomaniac with a penchant for used milk cartons.

reader said...

It's an interesting question and I often wonder if people that are "led" by characters are more likely to bail on a WIP if it isn't working out?

Do they give up when the characters don't lead them? Since they weren't in control to begin with they can blame it on their muse? Or if it does work out, then it was inspired?

There was a TED talk with Elizabeth Gilbert and that seemed the basis of her thought process -- if this next book fails it doesn't matter. I did my part... I showed up... She's wildly successful so maybe that does work, I dunno...

ryan field said...

I own my characters, I own the world in which they live, and I own every single aspect of their being :)

Goodwriter said...

I introduce the characters to one another. They create the situation;then I watch what they do and say and transcribe.

Daniel McNeet

-30- said...

I like to think of them as cattle. Cattle have ideas of their own sometimes, and (while I have never been a cattle hand) I know there are times when an individual steer could find a better path, but I am the only one who knows the final destination. I take their wanderings into consideration, but I'm driving this herd.

Art Rosch said...

Once I had a dream in which one of my characters instructed me. "I wouldn't say those things you wrote today," he told me. "They're out of character.
It's just not me. When you wake up,
do a rewrite and put words in my mouth that are true to my nature."

Nareshe said...

Depends on what I'm writing. I tend to write character-driven plots, where the complications and rising action stem directly from the actions of the characters. In that case, I usually know where I'm going, but the characters will often pick the path to get there.

On occasion, they're smarter than me. In one memorable instance, I had five false starts on a scene because I'd get 800 words into it and realize that this one particular character was lying to the other character (and to *me*) about her motivations, and the whole thing was really ringing false. It was a pivotal scene that was supposed to really justify this character's role in the conclusion of the book, and it just wasn't working.

So I took a deep breath, stepped back, and sent all five failed scenes to a friend of mine who's familiar with the work. He saw some similarities in the places where the scenes were failing, and suggested a piece of backstory that would make sense of all of those similarities--and which this character would be extremely loath to speak of.

I then took a run up at the scene, and all of a sudden the character was telling the truth, the other character was reacting, and I ended up adding a good chunk of story that made some things that had happened several chapters before really solidify into sense.

If a character decides to take the story in a direction i'm not expecting, it's often because the piece of my subconscious in which the character resides knows things I don't. My job in that case is to handle the character developments without letting them derail the plot.

Eric Borton said...

I was excited when I had reached the halfway point of my book. And that’s when everything went South. It’s where I became the living definition for writer’s block. It was less about finding the words to put on paper, and more about feeling uncomfortable about where I was taking the characters. It was the first time after 50,000 words that I started deleting entire chapters. It was freakin’ painful.

After two weeks of thinking the chaos in my head was something I needed to beat down like Rodney King, I simply asked the main characters where they wanted to go. I imagined I was having a nice conversation with them while quietly sitting in my sunroom. I let go of my concrete outline and replaced it with one that was more flexible. I had an overwhelming sense of euphoria when the main characters began to tell me their story. I finished the book less than two months later.

I agree you can’t let them run amok in your head to the point your running behind them furiously trying to document their every move, but I absolutely believe every once and a while it’s okay to ask them where they want to go.

In my opinion, we’re like parents giving birth to our characters at the beginning of a project. It’s our responsibility to nurture and raise them as best we can. As the writing progresses, so does their maturity. At some point (I think in their adolescent phase) they fight us at every turn. But if we do a decent job of brining them up in our world, when they become adults, they’ll make us proud.

JDuncan said...

Being a heavy plotter, I have it all worked out before I lay down word one. I've played it out so many times in my head, working through each scene with the characters to make sure it makes sense for me and to them, that I seldom deviate much from the story line once I start. I get all of those bugs (character idiosyncracies) worked out before they cause problems on the page and lead me astray. At least I like to believe it works that well.

Lydia K said...

I feel like I'm 80% in control. Each scene has a bit of wiggle room, and I find the characters naturally want to go in certain directions. Sometimes I nix these movements, sometimes I'm so glad they popped up.

Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...

When I pictured my characters for the first time they were whole and hugely self-opinionated. I saw the journey, the pit-falls, the highs and the lows.

I knew there was one aspect of Jess and Caleb's relationship I hadn't seen clearly and it bugged me for ages: why did things go, not briefly off the rails, but cataclysmically wrong?

I was watching the moon rise for the second time in December and I could see the problem mapped out in techni-colour. Then I didn't get why I'd ever felt unsure of the problem. Their realationship plummeted, not deep-south but polar.

Maybe we are a team?

Lucinda said...

I rarely create my characters. Rather, I discover them. One novel was nearly complete when my MC and the secondary MC actually seemed to rebel. It was as if they were asking me, "Just who do you think I am, anyway," or "I am not really like that, toughen me up." This turned one character, who was supposed to be the antagonist, into a hero at the end of the first novel of the four book series. Most of my characters seem to be waiting for me to cast them. They evolve according to the plot.

Cassandra Bonmot said...

My characters are all a version of me. And, I control them.

Jimmy Ng said...

I took a writing seminar from David Freeman. He's a screenwriter who lives in LA, but his techniques are about building depth both in story and character. I felt like I came out with a garage full of tools, knowing that I won't need them all in any one story.

But he does make use of a character diamond. You draw a square rhombus on paper and write character traits at each corner. He defined a character trait where it influences the character's view of the world. Traits such as homosexual or heterosexual, weak or strong, brave or fearful, man or woman, will have an effect on how a character will see themselves and their outside world.

Freeman suggests having at least three but no more than five traits. And then you build scenes off of those traits.

He cautions that you don't have traits like being brave and strong, or love and loyalty because on paper they tend to look similar. And you don't want to have opposite traits like weak and strong because they'll cancel themselves out.

So once I have these traits, I let my characters 'run' free, keeping in mind the story, plot, themes, etc.

Jimmy Ng

Anonymous said...

I feel like it's an ongoing battle between me and the main characters. they want to do something, I want them to do something else. In the end, I decided to write the whole book, then come back and characterize their dialogue/ actions.

steeleweed said...

I invent characters and a scene.
Logic takes over. If I don't like where the story is headed, I back up and change a scene, then turn if over to the characters again. Often I end up with a good story that's not the one I started out to tell, but if like it, I keep it.

Brent said...

Characters get out of whack when you lose focus of what they really are, when you forget things, and don't write a good description of them.

A character organizer is a good tool for this. There is one in our text editor on our site that we created because we had this exact problem.

Thanks
Brent
www.thebookpatch.com

Meghan Ward said...

This made me think of a funny column by Washington Post columnist Lisa de Moraes about Lost and its creators. She quotes Carlton Cuse:
"Ultimately, the way we look at it is that if the characters don't care about that question, then we as storytellers don't care about that question."

And responds: "Of course, what the characters do and do not care about is decided upon by . . . well, Cuse and Lindelof, come to think of it. Because the characters are, you know, not real people."

Here's the link: http://bit.ly/csCWUU

Anonymous said...

I obey the Muse and get to have my say-so in revisions!

-- Dawn Metcalf

Alyssa said...

I had this exact problem, and went blissfully unaware, laboring under the misapprehension that my work was just "literary" and all was well.

A kind agent read the book and pointed out the situation. She gave me some great advice when she passed on the full, and encouraged me to do a rewrite--the character was witty, charming, and could take for days (and boy, did I let him)--but the story got lost while my one of my two main characters was busy charming the pants off everyone.

She wants to read it again when the rewrite is done, so I can't thank her enough.

Amorena Nobile said...

A bit late to the party (post), but this is something I really felt like commenting on.

I often have almost no idea what my characters are like when I begin a novel. I decide what type of person my main characters are (gender, age, role in the story) and give them names, and that's all.

As a result, the first draft often becomes simply character development. I let the characters do what they want, telling me what they're like and what their story is. Once the first draft is done, I have a group of developed characters, but not a very usable plot.

The second draft is where I start pointing to pieces of the story, asking the characters if that's really what they want to happen. I feel the characters always know best, but sometimes they get carried away, so it's the author's job to rein them in. Often sometimes during the second draft is when the characters give me some truly wonderful ideas.

In my current project, two characters wanted to have a romantic relationship in the first draft, but when I came around to the second, they bit their lips and took a step away from each other. They're not entirely sure if they want to stay just friends forever, but whatever they decide, any romance is being saved for book two.

At the same time, a minor character that was little more than comic relief the first time around has become the deepest most likable character in the entire book, and I'm even writing his whole story as its own novel.

So, my characters and I are a team, working together to tell a story. They often are more excited about the book than even I am!

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