March 6, 2010 by Renee
Caught in a Google haze once more, I found myself reading some interesting Agent blogs. I came across one that posed the question; Do you own your characters or do your characters own you?
I read many comments following the post supporting this phenomenon. Of course I commented giving my feelings on the subject. The ridiculousness of it all tickled my cranky bone. Here are a few common complaints I’ve read:
“My main character just threw a wrench into my whole plot.”
“I’m trying to end this thing, but the characters just won’t cooperate. He’s decided to murder his wife and flee to Mexico.”
“I can’t get this character down, she just won’t be defined. She just keeps doing things that are so unlike her.”
“My characters hate me.”
Sigh. No, that’s not the mind of a psych patient with MPD or anything quite so interesting. Those are real writers talking, describing the issues that they’re having with their current manuscripts. Apparently characters an unmanageable breed; impulsive, temperamental, uncooperative, and sometimes down right weird.
When I began this journey to learn as much as I could about writing (something I fear will never end) I often played along, although I didn’t experience the same mutinies with my own characters. In all honesty, I tend to be a bit thick sometimes (occasionally called naïve or slow), and I thought that the discussions were all in fun. Some light-hearted banter about our characters that wasn’t really serious. I’ve learned since that although some of these writers are joking, most are not. They truly believe that their characters run the show and that they write to said characters’ whims. For me, there has always been a definite line between my characters and me. It’s that big red one over there, drawn between fiction and reality.
‘Oh my!’ you say. ‘We’ve gone right through the cranky bone and straight to the bitch muscle.’ You’re right, perhaps I’m being quick to judge here, so I’ll bend a little and concede that it is possible that this is what these writers experience when they write. Here’s my belief, for what it’s worth.
When building a character I think about them for quite some time. While playing with the story idea, setting the scene, plotting and all that fun stuff, I picture my characters in my head. Usually it’s just a handful of them at first, the starring roles, and by the time I begin writing I have a pretty good picture of each one. For larger casts I write this stuff down. My brain is a sieve, and will only hold so much information.
Now I’m writing the story. I’ve researched and planned and I do get into each character as much as I can. Often I find myself speaking or acting like them and then I feel silly. But our writing is an extension of ourselves, so it only makes sense that there is a little bit of the author in each character, good or bad. Acting like them isn’t unheard of. But they’re still far away in fiction land and I’m still over here in reality. We haven’t crossed over to shake hands and they haven’t spoken to me, at least not to tell me how to write my story. I will admit that each character I write has a distinct ‘voice’ in my head. I hear it as I write their dialogue, their thoughts and feelings, but I know it’s all imaginary. That’s how I think. I’m very visual, and I have to see or hear things to imagine them properly. So the voices are part of that.
Do these characters take over my work? Do they tell me where to go? Do they suddenly do something uncharacteristic that changes the whole ‘feel’ of the story and the reader’s opinion of them forcing me to re-evaluate good guys and bad guys and therefore crumbling the foundation of the entire plot? Good Lord, no. Not on their own anyway. I do that. Me. I’m responsible for what goes into this book. The actions and motivations of these characters stem from my decisions, good or bad. So when Joe Hero decides to bomb a church or strangle his best friend—though Joe Hero has never done anything remotely like that through the first twenty chapters and really has no reason to do so in Chapter twenty one—it’s my decision. (And no, I would never have Joe Hero do anything like that.)
Why then, does this happen to so many writers? Well, I have an opinion on that. Will I share? Of course I will. Thanks for asking.
Characters are living, breathing things and they are part of us; deeply ingrained for at least the amount of time it takes us to complete the book. We live with these characters for months, speaking to them, pleading with them, and building their lives and personas. The characters we begin with are not always the same at the end. Almost never in fact. They grow, change, disappear, die, etc. Characters that we didn’t plan evolve and pop up out of a dream or a conversation and we add them to the mix. Sometimes a secondary character, one that didn’t factor into the original plot will expand into one of the best characters of the book. I know this has happened for many writers, myself included. And it does indeed feel as though the character has a life of its own.
In a manuscript I’ve just finished (rough draft) I had a character that didn’t even have a name. He was a stranger who popped into two scenes to add suspense and interest, but really had no other function but to add to the stress level of the heroine. I kept thinking about this stranger, dreaming about him, creating backstory and a personality for him. I even gave him a name. All of this was in my head but I didn’t actually include it in the story. Then, while rewriting the first time, I found myself thinking about him. To me he was the most fascinating character of the bunch. Suddenly I had to add to his story. Two chapters and a few added scenes later, Thomas was alive. He factored into the plot in more ways than a few of the other ‘more important’ characters and even added a little history that was crucial to the main plot.
“Now she’s not making any sense. Didn’t she just say that characters cannot take over the story?” I’m glad you asked. Yes, that is what I stated. I still feel that way. Writers, at least the ones I hear complaining that they can’t go on with their WIP, claim that because of the character they are stuck. The character popped up and ruined the whole thing. They can’t get rid of them without rewriting and they can’t leave them as they are. The problem is not the character. It’s the decisions the writer has made up to that point that has thrown the story off track and left them in hot water.
You see, when developing characters a writer must remember to keep things somewhat realistic and true to their character’s personality. Getting carried along and losing ourselves is essential to writing a good story, but just as we must remember the rules of good grammar and such, we must also remember the rules to a believable plot. For example; a mother of two, who has divorced her lazy husband and struggled to survive through the whole story, thus far devoting her life to her children, would not take off with a goat shepherd from Zimbabwe, leaving her children to fend for themselves all in the name of passion and a happy ending. (Are there goat shepherds in Zimbabwe?) Neither would a serial killer who targets women wearing black dresses suddenly ‘go good’ and swear off murdering what he once felt the scum of the earth and an offense to God because of the clothing they wore because he’d seen the light one morning while sharpening his knives and realized it was the women in the culottes who really deserved to die. Sounds ridiculous? Perhaps I exaggerate the plots just a little, but you get my point.
If these things happen to your characters you have a problem. It’s called organization, plotting, and common sense. Every action, thought, statement, and decision made in your story has to be weighed and thought out in order to ensure a good book. You can let your mind take you where it will, but you have to know when to pull it back in and remember to keep in the back of your mind what makes sense to the plot. Unless you enjoy rewriting. If you do then, by all means, have at it. Go nuts and let the story weave and tilt and zigzag where it will. Then when rewriting, blame the characters and be done with it. But make sure when a publisher looks at it and asks: “What is the whole point of chapters seven through twelve?” don’t tell them Joe Hero took over and forced you to include those events. I promise you the publisher will not see things your way.
Having said all of that and pissing off many of my writing friends, I do understand how we might feel as though the story has taken over. Writers live primarily in their imaginations. I know that I have a constant ‘movie’ playing in my head. Voices, scenes, ideas; all of it runs through my mind all day every day, no matter what I’m doing. When you’re passionate about writing (if you aren’t, go find something you are passionate about because this isn’t your thing), you eat, sleep, and breathe your stories. Of course, how else do you create vivid and breathtaking pieces?
The important thing to remember when you get carried away, and when the characters feel larger than life and impossible to resist, is who is in the driver’s seat. A little reality check for writers that I think is sorely needed. Saying (and believing) that anyone or anything other than you as the writer has changed the course of your story, and caused it to fail or succeed, isn’t sensible at all. It reminds me of my kids when I ask who put the dog food in the dishwasher or who broke the remote. The answer is always, ‘Not me, it must have been…’, because they don’t want to accept responsibility and therefore pay the consequences. But they also don’t reap the rewards if they’ve done something that is good. “Who bathed the dogs? Nobody? Well, I was going to say great job. Here’s five bucks for your help. But since it was nobody, I guess they’ll get the money.”
I take full blame for messing up my work but I also take full credit for creating something brilliant. If you can do one, you must do the other.
Own your story, your characters and learn how to take control of your writing. In the end there’s only one person you’re hurting if you don’t. Yes, that’s you, Writer.