Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Do you talk about your characters as if they're real people?


I'm probably in the minority on this one. 

Sometimes writers talk about their characters as if they're real people. And I don't mean as in, "So and so did such and such," I mean, they talk about their characters as if they are people with their own agency that the author has little control over.

You'll hear things like, "I had big plans for what was going to happen, but then my character Suzy had other ideas!" or "Every time I sat down to write my novel, Suzy just made me take her to the craziest places."

On the one hand, I get it. It can be sort of strange to write a character whose internal logic you learn to obey. You might plan your novel ahead, but when you actually get down to writing it, you know your character's motivations so well you realize your previous plans don't make sense. It can feel like a character is gradually gaining control over your novel.

On the other hand, who is writing this novel?? Who are these characters that are outside of these writers' head and outside of their control? 

Confession: it kiiiiiiiiiiiind of weirds me out. 

Am I alone on this one or are there others out there like me? 

Art: An Eunuch's Dream by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ






69 comments:

justanotherabbigail said...

I completely, 100% agree with you: the characters are not writing this story - you are! It is weird to me, too.

I DO think you can suddenly have an epiphany about the back story or the future story, but I don't think the little people you are creating inside the computer are actually changing things on you or whispering into your ear when you fall asleep on top of your laptop.

A Laramey said...

Oh you're definitely not alone. In fact this type of behaviour drives me crazy. Of course that's probably because once an online writing group I was a part of berated me for planning my plot. Pretty much everyone was saying "You can't *decide* what's going to happen!! The characters will TELL you what's going to happen!"
Grrr.

Savannah said...

I would even go so far as to say that not experiencing characters in that way can leave me feeling inferior to those that do. It makes me question if I've done enough to ensure a fleshed out person to put in the page. So it's nice to hear at I'm not alone in finding that to be a foreign experience.

Linda C Jaeger said...

My WIP has surprised me a lot of times already, but it is not because the characters "want" something else to happen. Mostly I've been feeling dissatisfied about something or other for quite some time and eventually found a way to solve it. I am the person writing this book, and the characters are not real people.

I understand liking, even loving, your characters - after all, that is what we want the readers to do, and as a reader, many characters have found a place in my heart. I've noticed a change in how I look at texts after reading a lot about writing, however - I now see how the author creates them and what it is that makes me feel the way I do about them. It doesn't diminish their power, though. It just means it's good craft.

What really freaks me out is when people talk about their muse and how their muse made them change this or that. For me, that would be to abdicate all power over my writing, as well as any responsibility. Having to depend on my muse to give me ideas and watching the characters jumping around and deciding what to do on their own, I would feel I'd lost all control over the story.

I suppose they are all ways of putting a name to what happens when you are in the flow and your story is working - sometimes in unexpected ways. But why place the source outside yourself (muse/characters etc.)? Shouldn't you be able to take the credit for this?

If it works for you, then great! I'm just curious about the reasoning behind it, because it's so different from how I approach writing.

Maya Prasad said...

As a discovery writer, I am the totally the crazy person you are talking about. And your explanation is spot on: the character I created, with her motivations and personality, doesn't fit with the A to B plot roadmap I had envisioned. Maybe if I were *better* at prewriting/planning, I wouldn't fall into this. My ideas blossom better in my first drafts rather than outline form, and that's just the way it is.

But it's more fun to act like a crazy person with imaginary friends than to explain all that. Consider it shorthand. :)

Maya Prasad said...

Another confession: when I watch a TV show that I really like, I start to think of the characters as my friends. I have *totally* hung out in Eric Foreman's basement, way too many times.

Nathan Bransford said...

Maya-

Ha. I love that idea that it's shorthand -- makes sense actually.

And sorry some of the lines were cutoff in the original post, I think I accidentally published one of my drafts.

Shad Callister said...

Yeah, I find it pretty pretentious. But for extremely character-oriented stories, maybe it's a real thing. I'm more into sci-fi, thrillers, and adventure, which are not known for their true-to-life characters. (Way more fun, though!)

Brea B. said...

I enjoy pretending like my characters are real, but I know I'm in control. I might also occasionally say something like, "So-and-so doesn't want to talk to me today," meaning I'm not feeling inspired, but it's all said in jest. I agree that it's creepy when authors claim their characters "speak" to them and control the process. I love your completely sane explanation that as the author, you sometimes realize something you had originally planned doesn't make sense anymore, and that's what changes the direction of the story, not a bunch of fictional characters. Thanks for the laugh (and for the courage to speak out hahaha).

Karen M. Peterson said...

I'm a little bit guilty of it, but it also kind of weirds me out too. What does it say if I weird myself out?

eadard00dlesandcheese said...

I've had unplanned things occur to me "in the moment" that get woven in against plan. I attribute these events to the characters writing the story, or telling me their story...I'm a rational person who knows it all comes from me.
But I am a fantasy writer who enjoys hyperbole.

Shawn said...

No, you are not alone, but if your tribe were any smaller it would not qualify for status under the Bureau of Writer Peeve Affairs.

Janiss Garza said...

I never thought of this as strange at all - when I get an idea for a storyline, I flesh out the characters and then they tell me where they want to go with it - and sometimes it's not where I had planned. I don't really feel like the writer, more like a conduit.

Okay, maybe I'M the weird one!

Nicole Palmby said...

I think it's weird, too. But I have kind of a strange blend between the two sides of this issue. My characters do not direct the story. However, when I create them and write about them, I connect with them on what feels like a real and personal level. So when I discuss them with others, I feel like I'm talking about real people. But when I'm writing about them, and as I develop them, sometimes the character does go in surprising directions.

Karen Stivali said...

There have been times when I've seen the "character with a mind of his own" comment used by writers much as you describe (almost as an excuse for why a story didn't go the way the writer thought it would go) and I'll admit that has struck me as odd because yes, the writer is in control of the story and the characters are fictional. However, once a character is fully fleshed out in an author's mind and the events of the story are clear, the character does take on a life of his own. At least my characters do. For me, I can't write a book until I've seen it play out in my head, sort of like a movie. By the time I'm writing, I've seen what happens, I "know" the characters, I know their history, why they do the things they do, what makes them tick, and how they're apt to react to things. I'm not likely to say a story or plot point changed because a character made it happen that way, but after it's been written? During editing or during discussion after the book is out? Then I'm quite likely to respond with a comment like "But something like that wouldn't even occur to John...." or "Mary wouldn't do/say that." I've had critique partners or editors suggest things that I know are not in keeping with the behavior and thoughts my character would have in the same way that you might know that a close friend of yours would "never do that." Once I'm thinking about characters in those terms, they have become "real" to me because at that point I no longer feel like I could alter their behavior to my whim---to do so would turn them into different characters. That doesn't mean I can't edit or rewrite the circumstances the characters find themselves in, but the characters themselves are "real" enough to me that their actions and reactions have to stay true to them, and those characteristics are already set and defined.

The Belle in Blue said...

Yes, I know I am the writer and control what happens in my novel, but there have been multiple times when I'm writing a scene and this scenario plays out: I make "A" happen. Sit there and stare at the monitor and hear my main character say, "No, you have to make "B" happen!" to which I reply, "No freaking way is *that* happening!" Delete scene and make "C" happen. Stare at the monitor and hear the plea for "B" again. Refuse again. Delete scene and make "D" happen. Delve further into the alphabet until I finally give in and make "B" happen. Tell character to shut up and stop gloating.

And, no, I don't have schizophrenia. My mother had me tested.

abc said...

I hate it. Hate it hate it. Do I sound harsh? Because I hate it. It makes me cringe. Like when people compare writing to breathing. I love my characters and creating them and making lives for them. And I totally know that they do not exist outside of my head or the page. They don't surprise me. I surprise myself. But what would Jung say?

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

I think people are taking it a little too seriously. I have said once or twice that my character did something I hadn't expected. But I never believed for a second that it was actually the character acting as outside agent, and I don't believe any other writer feels that way either. It's shorthand for, "I had planned one set of actions, but I realized the logic of the character I created wouldn't allow that without violating that personality. I was faced with the prospect of creating a character that felt phony or respecting the work I had done in creating it and change my plans." But that's a little longwinded. It's easier and more colorful to say, "The character made me do it." Which is not wrong, just incomplete.

Jennavier Gilbert said...

I used to be on your side, but I just had a character that completely changed to a place I wasn't comfortable with. I think the only way my brain was able to rationalize it was to give him autonomy. So now I'm in the other camp!

Claire said...

I do this all the time. But I don't count it as hearing voices in my head. I figure, the more real they are to me, the more real they'll be to readers.

My favorite writing exercise, is pretending I'm sitting my characters down around a big conference table, and asking them what happens next :)

Jaimie Teekell said...

It has a ring of false fondness to it, like how mothers talk about their toddlers after they've spent the last week at home with them.

Charli Armstrong said...

I do this very thing.

I always thought it had something to do with me being an actor. Having to "get out of my head" so to speak and allow the character to motivate the actions and move the story. I didn't move from stage right to left because the director told me to; it's because the character needed to stop her lover from walking out on her.

Sometimes it's like playing the Sims on high free will. You leave the game idle for a few seconds, and the Sims start making their own decisions, with occasional hilarious results. Of course you step in before things get too out of control, but some quirky little decision made on the part of the Sim can change and improve your gameplay.

And now that I just nerded this place out, I will end my comments here.

Kentish Janner said...

On the one hand, my characters become 'real' to me in the sense that I know them inside-out, to the point where I instinctively know if, halfway through my planned-out story, I'm asking them to do something it's 'not in their nature' to do. And I will not 'force' them to do that thing...

But on the other hand I AM THE BOSS OF THIS STORY. And if my little petlings rebel against Plan A, I will simply connive to create a Plan B and torture them that way instead, bwah hah haaa...

*strokes imaginary cat.*

Anonymous said...

I'm not lonely; I'm alone when I write. I write as if I am the the reader. I'm detached but not impervious to a characters Psychological ins and outs. I suppose much like a parent; there when a lesson is needed, encouraging with the knowledge they will fledge. The minute I leave the writing nook, I'm done.
My characters are of me, (Don't write what you don't know, thank god I've done it all. LOL) but as their parent I've already experienced the dirty work of real life, just there to make sure they dot their eyes and cross their tees.

Julie Musil said...

I'm with you 100%!! When I first began writing fiction, I thought I was the crazy one because of this. Now I know I'm not alone :)

Chris Bailey said...

Not exactly. I confess to chortling when telling another writer about my main character's antics. But I don't have the disconnect that allows me to believe that the character behaved independently.

AM Riley said...

It kind of weirds me out, too. I created the character to be a certain way for a reason that is story driven. If I find that the character I created does not make sense, then I've made a mistake and I have to go back and recreate the character.

He/she doesn't 'tell' me what to do.

My hallucinations are the only people who do that.

Anonymous said...

When asked how he felt about killing off Robb and Catelyn George R R Martin said: "That was the hardest scene I’ve ever had to write. It’s two-thirds of the way through the book, but I skipped over it when I came to it. So the entire book was done and there was still that one chapter left. Then I wrote it. It was like murdering two of your children. I try to make the readers feel they’ve lived the events of the book. Just as you grieve if a friend is killed, you should grieve if a fictional character is killed. You should care. If somebody dies and you just go get more popcorn, it’s a superficial experience isn’t it?"

Linda said...

Hey, I talk to canned beans, so of course I talk about my characters, sometimes forgetting I made them up! I've also picked up some of their mannerisms and adopted silly words they use.

Barbara Kloss said...

Such a refreshing post! Here I thought there was something wrong with me...

When I first started writing, I heard people talk about their characters in this way all the time, and I just didn't get it. I tried to. I really did.

But at the end of the day, I kept coming back to the fact that _I_ was the one making those final judgement calls and tweaking plot points. Yes, the subconscious likes to drop explosives on my meticulous plans, but these characters come from MY head. And when I would try to blame everything on the "whims" of that character, I realized it was just a way for me to shirk my own responsibility as their writer and creator and what messages I was conveying. If that makes any sense.

Thanks for this post!

Sharon A Lavy said...

It sounds like plotters telling pantsters they are not doing it right. I try to plot, I really do. I am a bit jealous of those who can.

But I can only go so far with a general idea when I start hearing the voices. Sorry to wierd you out.

If I don't write down what the characters are saying to each other I never will get the story written.

I have a general idea and I sort of know the ending. But I do not know all the twists it will take to get there.

This is one of the reasons I love writers conferences. Finally people who think like I do.

Marion said...

Of course I have a pretty clear idea who the characters are and what the plot is. But sometimes a character will "Take over".
But I think this is really my subconscious mind telling my rational conscious mind what's REALLY going on.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Well, I write in that "muse-directed, character-driven" way, and I experience characters that way. But as other writers have said here, I don't *really* believe the characters are independent people, and to me the muse is just a sort of jokey shorthand for the process.

It's more that the conscious part of my brain, the one that thinks and plans and uses strategy and logic, happens to be a pretty crappy novelist. (Though it's a decent editor and proofreader.) The part of my brain that does the best fiction writing is a different part; it seems to hand up characters and scenes from some depths of my mind to which I don't seem to have direct access. So these characters and scenes show up as if from a muse or as if on their own, but really I know it's just some other part of my brain, perhaps the same part that produces dreams.

Every piece of fiction I've written under the influence of the conscious, logical part of the brain garners the criticism that it seems forced, flat, and lifeless, while the writing that people respond to most strongly is the stuff that comes from the "dreamier," more mysterious part of the brain.

What I've found works best is to let the "dreamy" brain do the first drafts, and then let the "conscious" brain take over the editing.

To use a less artistic example, it's like if you were walking down the street and suddenly thought, "Hey, maybe I should have a chicken sandwich for lunch," without any cues in the external world that would trigger that thought. You don't really get creeped out by the fact that this chicken sandwich popped into your head seemingly out of nowhere; you might even joke that "the sandwich is calling me," but really you would know that your brain must've just done some behind-the-scenes neuroprocessing that produced the idea of the chicken sandwich. And then the conscious, logical part of the brain comes in and evaluates whether you can afford the sandwich, whether you already have other lunch plans, etc.

Eugenia Parrish said...

I'm not weirded out but when I hear someone say, "Oh, So-n-so just went off in a completely different direction from what I wanted" I can't help wondering if they're trying to evade responsiblity in case the book ends up sucking. As in 'The devil made me do it!' My characters are pretty well formed in my mind by the time I start writing scenes and of course they're alive to me, and as I write, I "get to know" them better, which sometimes causes me to take the plot in a slightly different direction. But I'm the one writing the book. Are we writers or just channelers? Because what really weirds me out are writer-advice books that tell me to do things like sit down with a character and interview them. That's just too creepy.

Sharon A Lavy said...

You don't interview your characters? Now that is weird. I only do it when I am stumped. I ask them why they are doing something. And I find out.

G. B. Miller said...

Not so much my characters as more my muse is a real person.

Well she is!

Father Nature's Corner

Neil Larkins said...

Sometimes I wish my characters would talk to me so I wouldn't have to work so hard trying to figure them out...or to tell me when I've written something out of character for them. Great subject, Nathan

tcscrib said...

We writers are an extraordinary lot, so I wouldn't say it weirds me out when authors talk this way.

I'm far more weirded out by the title of the painting at the top of the post: "An Eunuch's Dream" -- Does anyone out there actually speak that way? "AN Eunuch?" "AN ukulele?" That's just creepy.

Sarah Brentyn said...

Yup. That's me. My characters are hanging out waiting for me to tell their story. I'm just the writer. They're kind of like cats. You think you own them but they sort of own you.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Yes, I do sometimes talk about my characters. I've even mistakenly called somebody a character name, because I was so buried in my head at the time. It was a confusing situation for everybody involved.

In the context of being a "pantser" more than a planner, my characters do speak to me after a fashion. But do they do things I don't expect? No. Sometimes, though, through writing I gain a greater understanding of why they do the things they do.

reprehn said...

You're not alone, though I've often felt very much in the minority. And I will admit, I sometimes find it really annoying when authors say, "I had such great plans and my character just wouldn't go along with them" -- especially when they're whining about their book not going the way they wanted it to. It reminds me of parents who say, "My child won't do what they're supposed to" -- and yes, my comment is often, "Who's the parent here?" (just like your comment: "Who's the author here?")

Bruce Bonafede said...

I think it's possible to write characters that do EXACTLY what you want them to do, but they do it entirely of their own volition. I don't think you can do it with all characters, or should even try, but with primary characters, definitely. How is it possible? We all contain many characters. The hard part is finding them and bringing them out.

wendy said...

I discovered a while ago, a bit to my surprise, that my characters are just puppets on the strings of my thoughts. If I changed a plot element, I'd go back and have them speak completely different lines without any bother. Sometimes when I'm illustrating them I'll discover an aspect that I like more than how I described them in the story. One character had a dramatic change of hair colour, another went from being fairly plain to glamorous. However, I wonder if my control is affecting the non-human character from becoming as life-like or picture-able as I'd like him to. But I try never to plan or outline as I feel this comes from the conscious mind whereas the best ideas come from the subconscious/spiritual part. So I kind of let things happen and see where it goes.

I understand where people are coming from when they describe their character as real to them and having their own personality and desires and directing the course of the story in the way they do. This allows for good internal logic and consistency.

Lexa Cain said...

Thank goodness. I was afraid I was the only sane one left. I hate it when people talk about their characters as if they were real, let them decide where the novel goes, open FB pages for them, or have them do interviews on people's blogs. No, I don't care what Alpha Hero eats for breakfast 'coz he's NOT REAL!

Anonymous said...

I went on a creative writing course led by quite a famous author (and very bad teacher). He was discussing a character in one of his previous books who had recurred in his current work-in-progress. "His first appearance was in [a very specific setting]. And I didn't know what his reasons for being there were. It wasn't until I started this book that I learned about his background, and the circumstances that had brought him to that place. He began to tell me so much about why he was the way he was."

I found this really, really annoying - and not a little bit pretentious.

Nina Niskanen said...

I do sometimes talk about my characters going off and doing their own thing but that's not how I think about it. In my own head, I see the process of ideas forming and becoming changing into new and cool avenues the stories could go down but if I'm talking about the new direction, it's sometimes just easier and faster to say "but my MC suddenly decided to open the closet and what she discovered there changed the whole plot". Although usually I tend to talk about such things in terms of "I had this awesome idea and now my whole plot has changed.

Sharon A Lavy said...

Hmmm ... I am starting to wonder if plotters think they are better than others. I need to leave this conversation. Need to figure out how to do this.

Lori Schafer said...

While my characters do tend to develop their own personalities as I'm writing them - sometimes seemingly of their own accord - they're never in control of the action.

Sophia said...

Yeah, sorry, Nathan, I honestly don't understand how you don't have this experience. I have recently finished a first draft where the main character flatly refused to do what I had planned for her and went in another direction completely.

I mean, of course I realize I'm the writer, but it's more than just a question of following the character's logic and decided what I want the story to do. I am incapable of forcing a character in a direction they don't "want" to go in. The story would simply fall apart and I'd cease to write it, because the main character drives my stories. If I try to make them do something that breaks who they are, the story is broken. Talking about them like they are real is just a more comfortable way of addressing the issue, I suppose, but OTOH it really does feel like that. It really felt like my character was all, "Hell no, I'm not doing that. I'm doing THIS." I wrote a blog post after one of these major contradictions happened all about wrangling fictional characters, because that's how it felt.

D. U. Okonkwo said...

He he - yes, but I don't interview them. My characters often feel things and think things that I do, so sometimes how they have reacted to things come into my conversation with others.

Meredith Towbin said...

I was stuck in the middle of writing one of my novels--couldn't decide where to go next--and somebody suggested I interview one of my main characters. So I did. Whatever the question was that I asked, "my character" kept answering the same thing over and over again. It was insane. I was insane. It didn't help at all and it just made me feel like I wasn't a "real" writer because my characters wouldn't "talk" to me. Or, more accurately, my characters were idiots. Did that mean I was an idiot? Ugh, so conflicted.

Lady Jewels Diva® said...

Of course it happens and there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with it.

For me it makes it more real. I use real life actors as the inspiration for my novels and place myself in them as the female lead. It means the feelings and emotions will be more real because I'm feeling them, that experiences will be more real because I've been through them and there is nothing wrong with that.

My experiences writing has been slightly different from novel to novel. The first played like a movie in my head and I wrote as it came. The second and third I wrote a brief synopsis of each chapter and what I wanted out of it and then let the story flow in my head. The third was a vague idea and I certainly had no idea where it was going to go.

I think when your muse strikes the best way is to let her take you where it's supposed to go. You can't really control a story because your mind will continually come up with new ways of killing someone or getting out of a situation. Your brain is constantly working and thinking and jumping ahead so you may or may not know where it's going.

Many authors write like this, Jackie Collins for example. It clearly works for her. And it works for me. While I may have a basic outline in my head of where I want it to go and how I want it to be.

Your imagination will flesh it out, and your characters being real people in your head, because you're writing about them, their feelings and their lives, immersing yourself in all things character, is not wrong and doesn't make it wrong. It's just another way of writing.

Michael Neff said...

It's a subset of confusing fictional reality with actual reality. Writers get so invested that the plot and other elements become a living history to them. Everything from the set to the circumstances to the character's speech is recalled as if it actually took place, or at least, as if a film already produced and shot and rendered on the screen.

Anonymous said...

You're not alone on this one, Nathan :)

I sometimes dream about them as if they are real people.

Alana Roberts said...

I'm with you, Nathan. It's weird and creepy and probably contributes to a lot of boring, incoherent books.

I was thinking about this and it seems likely that what happens is that people imagine a character very deeply, but (!!!) without taking into account what that character will be doing in the course of the plot (!!!) Then, a personality track is formed in the writer's brain.

Personality track. Like, you know how memories in the brain forge synaptic connections that turn into neurological "ruts"? Well, what I figure is that when you get to know a real person's characteristics, you end up with a memory "rut" that allows you to predict how that person will act. So, this writer who has formed a memory "rut" for a character is starting to have a similar experience. That's where the feeling kind of real comes from.

In real life, if we wrongly predict how someone will react to something, their real reaction will correct us, and then our picture of their personality will be enriched, broadened, or corrected - and we will become less rigid, less certain of our grasp on their personality, as they come to seem more complex to us. But this never happens with a fictional character, so, the same rut just gets deeper and more rigid and more insistent. It's an imaginative failure.

Now, I know you are too nice to say it that way, but that's how I see it. If my plot needs to diverge from how I imagine my character acting, I sit down and think about that character and imagine him doing that thing in the plot, and lo and behold, my memory-track for that character's personality-track gets corrected. I see deeper into his motivations and weaknesses then. Because that character IS the kind of person who does what the plot need him to do, and all it requires is some imaginative fortitude for me to reach the level of understanding where I can see that!

Of course the same thing can happen in reverse. If I really want my character to be the way I originally imagined him, I can re-imagine my plot to a certain extent. But, I try to keep in mind that while the plot is about the character, the story IS the plot. If I can't tell the story I wanted to tell, what good is that damn character to me?

If that feels like blasphemy or murder, then yes, you've blurred the distinction between reality and fiction WAY too much! LOL!

Natalie Wright said...

I usually agree with your posts and most of the comments, but on this one maybe not. Or perhaps most writers experience this but describe it in a different way?
I think when writers are talking about "the character" taking over, what they're talking about is their conscious, ego-mind self being surprised by what the sub-conscious mind came up with during the writing process. It can feel like the "characters" took over and thus people describe it that way. But I think it is exactly what Stephen King refers to as the "boys in the basement" doing their work. For me, even though I've planned things out, when I get into the flow and the "boys in the basement" take over, the "characters" sometimes take me to places I didn't expect. Rather than this leading go "boring" stories (as one commenter stated), the stories in fact obtain twists and turns that surprise and delight readers as well as myself (as opposed to the predictable prose that is so common).
It's about being in the flow and letting go. And when it happens it's a beautiful thing and can feel as though the "characters" took over, but in fact it's still very much the writer but writing from that deeper place.
Now that doesn't mean that all of the material produced from this place is good. In the production of my last novel, I cut over 70,000 words (to get to the 108,000 final). But it's never wasted. Those forays lead to insights about character, setting, etc.
I suspect that most writers experience this but perhaps don't describe it the same way. And you haven't experienced it and think it's "crazy", maybe you should give it a try and see what happens ;-)

Alana Roberts said...

The writing that feels therapeutic or rapturous as it issues forth from the soul hardly ever results in material fit for public consumption. It is called self-indulgent art; it is the processed cheese of literature.

I am no stranger to inspiration. As a poet I've learned how to harness it. I've also learned how to distinguish between genuine inspiration and feel-good internal compulsion. The first is enlightening - when it appears, it produces understanding so that, when you make use of it in your writing, you still know what you are doing. You are still in authority. Following the lead of the second, on the other hand, merely produces a feeling of sedation as one gives in to unexamined urgentness. Ah, that feels good: though my novel's a mess, no one can understand my poem, or my collage art is offending half the civilized world with my outrageous concatenations, still, better out than in, right?

So let's make distinctions clear. The image of someone who thinks of herself as an 'author' while eschewing her own 'author'ity is the image of a plowman harnessed to his own plow while the horse stands by, idley pulling at clumps of grass. It is one of those amusing reversals that become excellent comic material in the hands of merry persons who are not, like me alas, irremedial curmudgeons in training.

It is not, however, best practice for producing coherent written works.

J.S. Johnson said...

I don't do this. Some people have asked me about my characters, and I usually begin with, "I wanted to create a character who..." Occasionally I'll lapse into the 'he/she' vernacular, but never to the point that I attribute control over what I'm writing to the characters. Sounds a little weird and possibly dangerous, honestly.

I'm a firm believer that characters are constructs of people and personalities that we know or idealize. That being said, I think it's really hard on a writer to write from 'inside' the story too much.

All of that being said, though, I think it's natural for a writer to exult in the characters' triumphs and agonize in their defeats. It's how we attach ourselves to the story, and if we can't then the reader certainly won't.

Julia said...

To me it's more funny than anything else, a writer saying a character has a mind of its own. It's like when actors say they can't shake off a character, that it has a 'grip' on them!

Alana Roberts said...

Ah... interesting, Julia. Maybe this is the writer's equivalant to "method acting."

melcockman said...

I must confess, I do talk about my characters as if they are real people, to the point where I told someone, "it took my character three years to tell me his backstory, and he only told me when I promised not to explicitly tell the readers."

But if I thought about them as real people I'd feel much more guilty about putting them through so much hell. So with me it's a balancing act between thinking of them as real and acknowledging them as creations which I control.

eleventy12 said...

Writing is a wonderful, semi-controlled form of personality dissociative disorder.

If you've been a part of a critique group for a long time, it gets worse. You'll make a mistake for the millionth time and another voice pops in your head - one of your fellow writers who always calls you on that error.

"That's not what a semicolon is for," the voice says.

Get out of my head!

Melissa said...

I was going to agree with your post but then my characters told me that it would be a lie. ;)

I have my books plotted out but there have been some details that have surprised me as I tried to think what the different characters would do in those particular circumstances.

@Charli Armstrong - I agree with you about the Sims! I think that game is a good analogy.

Naomi Bellina said...

Yep, I also get a little weirded out when people go into great detail about how their characters take control. It's kind of like a Twilight Zone episode is happening.

Lynn Viehl said...

Our character constructs should be like real people to us in all ways possible, and whatever creative things we do that helps us breathe life into them on the page is part of the process. So while I don't talk about my characters as if they're real people, no judgment here on anyone who does.

What bothers me is when the lines between fiction and reality start to blur for a writer. Someone who jokes about going out shopping for their character is probably just being funny. Someone who actually goes out and buys a gift for their character may be in trouble.

Dave Cantrell said...

I am a new writer and have not published yet. I'm just in the process of editing my first novel. The idea that my characters are writing the novel is weird to me also. However,I have found, as I'm editing, that I'm asking myself would the character do or say the things in particular scene. Which is a little bit like your issue.

By the way I like your book "How to Write a Novel." It helped me immensely and got me off my fat ass. Thank you.

inklings Anon said...

If your book is character driven and not plot driven then this should happen naturally where your character dictates the plot. It proves your character is strong. But then you have to step back and realized, hey I created you now get back on the page. I guess I don't know anyone who is that out of control though that they don't know where the character ends and the author begins. It's like that saying: the difference between an author and a schizophrenic is...

Myg said...

I am someone who tries to outline a plot and then often finds that it just doesn't work because of the way I've drawn the characters, and as a writer I'm much better at creating dynamic characters than interesting plots. But that's just me. When I was first writing, I did talk about characters like they were real people for this reason. After a couple of books, I too decided that it was creepy, sort of like married couples calling each other "Ma" and "Pa" when the kids aren't around. I don't know why. I think the more you write, the more skill you develop and the more in control you feel, and then the less you see characters as having their own agency. I don't know what's going on with seasoned writers who do it, but I'll join you in saying it weirds me out.

K. C. Blake said...

Sometimes I will say, "I hate (character's name), and I want to kill them." But I try not to say that in public.

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