Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I Confess! My Characters Made Me Do It!

Maybe I shouldn't admit this. Maybe I'm tarnishing the images of authors yet unborn or, even worse, yet unread. But the truth is, sometimes my ficitional characters take the wheel and start driving the car. And as wimpy as this may sound, that's as good as it gets.

"What are you talking about?" asks a young woman in the third row. "You invented these characters, didn't you? You can make them do anything you want them to do."

She's right. And she's wrong.

How many times have you read a story, or seen a movie, and said, "She wouldn't have done that." Or "He would have told her." Or, to paraphrase all such comments, "That's out of character."

If an author has fully developed the people in his story, everything they do--their actions, their words, the relationships they enter into or opt out of--everything will reflect their personalities, their passions and their peculiarities. And if that doesn't happen, the reader isn't going to believe it. So you'd better be careful when you create characters, because they'll start talking back to you.

Case in point: In my novel, The Wingthorn Rose (Sunstone Press), one of the major characters--Margot Sinclair--started life as a minor player. In my outline, she entered and exited in one scene. But when Lucas Murdoch (my protagonist) met her, he liked what she said--her refreshing honesty--her attitude. Not to mention her beauty. In fact, Margot took over the scene and made such an impression on Lucas that he began to move in a different direction--and so did the plot.

A young man in the fifth row just said, "I guess you just don't know how to stick to your outline."

On the contrary. When I write, I  most enjoy those moments when the work produces itself--when the story generates its own logic-- when the characters obey their own instincts. When the people I've created take over.

How do you feel about this, dear reader? Dear writer? Does this make sense to you?


  1. Can authors let characters do anything they want? Of course they can, but then the credibility of the story subsequently suffers. Our incessantly probing minds rapidly notices when something is amiss. Like a highly respected and admired principal of a high school drinking Jack Daniels right out of the bottle in front of everyone at the senior prom. For a book, it's probably means death for the story, since readers will say, "Oh, that couldn't happen," which destroys believability. Once we paint the portrait of a character in the beginning, we'd better adhere to reasonable expectations concerning their behavior. However, when deviations from predicted conduct do happen in real life, first of all, we can't argue with the truth, and second, because it is so out of the ordinary, the actions often become headlines in the media. Like the mother who drowned her children a while ago. Also, I'm always dumbfounded with many movie scripts, where they spend millions of dollars to produce these films, with experienced and talented script writers, and the story wanders or becomes senseless. A few of the exceptions that come to mind for allowing character nonconformity, would be during the fervor of combat in war, or in a desperate situation, when a meek person, given only a moment to act, places themselves in danger in the process of rescuing some helpless person.

  2. I had to comment on this. Please forgive me for not really getting "technical" with my response, though. I chuckled when I read the title and identify with you 100% on this!

    I've had entire conversations with Julie Whitney (a character in my novel) that never made the final draft. Sam Woods (she's in my series, Freethrown) and I trade jabs like a comedy duet. I shed physical tears while dictating Sara Mayze's (Freethrown again) confessions to "fake" Jesse and "fake" Sam. For me, having my characters do what they want and not what they're told is a common thing!

    But then I remember that I'm not a common writer. I don't have a storyboard. I don't plan Freethrown's chapters and I didn't plan Anticipation's. I just write. Most people say that's my downfall. Others love that my characters "act like real people". For instance, in Freethrown: Sara and Jesse are everyone's favorite couple. They're both "hot". They share a love for basketball. They're young, energetic, and passionate. But Jesse's been sexually attacked before. And Sara's never really had a girlfriend. And then you add super-sexy, hilariously-funny Sam into the picture (who has her eye set on Sara from page one) and you've got a problem! Sara becomes confused after realizing that she actually cares about Sam. And the readers went nuts! I got hate email and friends texted me to "fix it"! Because I felt some sort of "guilt", the story stalled for quite some time because Sara and I were scared to say anything. Then we had a talk and she said, "Savi.. let's just write my truth. If they read it, great. If not, then we'll just let them wonder what happened."

    I know characters are supposed to do what we tell them. But... just like "real life"...the people with the most character are those who don't necessarily follow the script. ;-)

  3. As a fellow author I find myself in complete agreement with Chase's witty description of how characters come off the page to exercise wholly unanticipated control of the lives I thought I'd created for them. While I'd read of the phenomenon Chase captures, I was inclined to agree with the woman in the third row (nice hat by the way) that I would have control over my creations (I made the same error in judgment with each of three children incidentally). As it turned out, they (my characters that is) took me in unexpected and often exciting directions as they took control of parts of the story and I followed as close behind as I could manage.

  4. There was one time when I was only starting to write (perhaps when I was 7 or 9?) and heard this theory. I did not understand it, back then. And then I realized it had some truth to it.
    There was this character, in a story I made. I already plotted the ending. I already had it in my head. This character would have done something so amazing that I thought it would've become one of the most fantastic story I've written in my life (it wasn't, mind you).
    There was one problem; the character didn't want to do it.
    He gave me dreams. Three of them. All of them threatening me. The first one, I was frightened, but thought that changing the ending for something as insignificant as a dream was ridiculous. The second one, I ignored it completely. The next day, I found that I couldn't edit the story; I tried very hard, believe me. But it was no use. I couldn't do it.
    It took me five months to get over this.
    By the time I finished it, the character gave me one last dream. He sat in this dream, on a wooden chair, and politely asked: "Please change the ending." I refused. I said no. I threw things at him. Sighing as a response, he then said: "Then I'll just have to change it for you." (I'm being very serious here; the dialogue was all I remembered from it, now).
    The next day, when I came to my computer, I realized that parts of the story he had featured in were missing; the ending, which he absolutely despised, was completely erased.
    I rewrote it the way he wanted it to be. He never bothered me again.
    I'm quite sure you're not going to believe me, but that was what happened; and after that little occurence, I decided to connect with my characters more. I left them to drive their own stories. I wrote them all down. Many of my friends think they're great. Sure, the writer is the ringleader; s/he tells the characters what to do. S/he keeps the plot alive and well. S/he keeps the circus of a story entertaining. But remember; people go to the circus to watch the performers do what they love. People read stories to imagine what the characters want to do. According to the characters, you are nothing but a divine entity that created them. The only thing you could probably do is tell them to reach a goal. The way they do it is their decision, not yours.