It’s Alive!

In response to my introductory post about planning last week, Ivan commented that as a reader he couldn’t understand writers who say that characters take over – surely those characters are our own creations and will do anything we want – no more or less?

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a satisfactory explanation of this, which makes me wonder if it’s possible. But I am going to try my best here, and I welcome the comments, thoughts or disagreement of other writers and of readers too.

Of course, on a basic level, we control what the characters do in the stories we write. We can choose to write something down any way we please – even at its smoothest and most inspired, writing is not automatic writing. But that’s not what we’re talking about when we say that the characters take over.

Sometimes, writing is like transcribing the movie in your head. The story flows as naturally as a dream, and the writer merely watches it and describes it on paper (or keyboard). Of course, it’s a waking dream, so we could step in and change the events, but how often do you feel in control of your daydreams? If you picture yourself lying on a beach, watching the waves lap on the shore, you certainly could consciously decide to have a waiter appear at your arm with a pina colada, but it’s more likely that this will happen unconsciously as your mind builds its image of escape.

But a lot of writing isn’t like that. it’s more conscious. The art of writing is not precise. Even a writer with a detailed plan will be filling in details as he or she goes along. You might have planned that your main character (MC) goes to a high school reunion and meets an old flame there, but when you write the reunion scene you will be adding other characters – teachers and students from her past – and having to flesh out their history. In doing so, you might “discover” (by which I mean create, more on this in a moment) that your MC got a detention from her Science teacher for something she didn’t do. This new information feeds into your picture of your MC, so that suddenly the argument she had with her teenage son three chapters ago about doing his Science homework takes on a new significance. When you wrote it, it was just an excuse to get the son to storm out of the house so that you could have her home alone when her lover phoned. Now, out of nowhere, Science is a feature and you will want to return to it later. Her experiences will also influence how she goes on to deal with her son’s problems in school for the rest of the novel. You might even have to go back and change how she dealt with her daughter getting a detention in Chapter 1.

What I am trying to show here, is that while we do control what we write, we don’t make all the minor decisions in advance, and we don’t necessarily even make them with a great deal of awareness. In the planning stage, we knew that MC was going to meet her old flame at the reunion. We knew that she would have to go through a bit of mindless small talk with the other people at the reunion to build the tension and suspense before she caught up with him. But what that small-talk was going to be didn’t seem to matter until we started writing it. We just threw a few bodies between MC and the ex-boyfriend. Those bodies needed form and something to say and, being a reunion, they needed history. So we created one, but really, we looked into our minds (or muses or our own memories or wherever else we search for extras in the cast of our novels) and discovered something at random.

These apparently minor decisions about something that happens to our MC or about something our MC thinks or feels can have a profound effect on how we view her. And then, when we come to the part of the story where the MC makes a life-changing decision, we come to realise that she wouldn’t go the way we’d planned all along at all. She would pull the trigger, or say yes or whatever it is. And bam, you’ve got a completely different story on your hands from the one you planned.

Sometimes, the extras (whether they are people, events, places or whatever) in a novel as just that, extras. They float in, pad the scenery, and then they float out again without ever really having done anything. But other times, they sneakily become pivotal. They get ideas above their station and they flap their wings like a butterfly in an English meadow. And before you know it, there’s an earthquake out in California and you’re wondering how it got there.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “It’s Alive!

  1. I completely agree with you. Characters are organic and grow as you write. Once you give them characteristics and a past, they guide the journey so to speak (ie: you know how they will act in certain situations even if it is not how you planned it. I once wrote a scene for my MC that I just loved but then I realized there is no way she would do that. So I axed it.).

  2. Ivan Lax

    Best explanation I’ve ever heard and really helps me understand what writers mean. It also encourages me (and others I am sure) to put pen to paper without a grand plan and be happy to see what develops. Who knows, maybe by November I’ll be up to NaNo!

    • Plans help too, especially for a longer piece or under time pressure like in NaNoWriMo, but yes, the characters can help you on your way.
      I’m glad this post helped to answer your question, Ivan!

  3. jackie

    I have just been reading your explanation in respect of the MC taking control of a novel and for me, also a ‘non writer’, the explanation is excellant as it demonstrates how the journey for the MC may continue swiftly along or relentlessy change depending perhaps on the writer’s mood of the day, who they meet or what they read! Your article answers a lot of questions!

    • Glad it helped, Jackie. There is a phrase I think that a mother is never happier than her unhappiest child, well it’s a different story with writers and their characters – characters usually take their moods from the author. But having said that, if I’m writing a difficult or moving piece, I can definitely feel it dragging down my mood!

  4. I appreciate the clarity, the step-by-step presentation, of this issue. Placing it in the context of the previous planning helps, I’m sure.
    I admit I kind of feel there is a lot remaining unsaid – not that it’s anything wrong with that.

    • Thanks Norv, I agree that it is incomplete – the more I thought about this the more I realised you could write a whole book on the subject. Maybe I’ll come back to it another time, but in the meantime feel free to add anything I’ve left out.

  5. Pingback: 100th Post | elmowrites

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