Deep Thoughts on Characters that Won’t Behave

I was reading Ryan Lanz’s recent post (you should check him out–good stuff there) and it got me thinking; thinking more than a simple comment on his blog could contain. So I’m going to explore, dear readers, the notion that characters can take control of a story, from a different perspective than Ryan’s original post.

Ryan discussed hearing an interview where an author talked about his characters as if they were in charge. The author being interviewed said his characters would occasionally “hijack the story”, moving it to where they wanted it to go.

Ryan felt like this was rather ridiculous, and logically, of course it is (unless perhaps the author has a severe personality disorder, which it can be argued all fiction writers do). But I have a different view of characters and how they shape a story than Ryan, and maybe it is just looking at the other side of the coin, rather than any sort of disagreement with him. Ryan took the view that if it seems a character is in control and moving the story somewhere, it’s because the author is trying to put something in that doesn’t fit; that our creative mind nags at us that we’ve done something out of character just to aid the plot, say, and hence the story ends up hijacked and needs rescuing.

Here’s where I propose a very different view that comes simply from my own writing experience. My characters take over the story all the time–and that’s the way I like it.

It might go back to the difference between being a bleeder or a barfer–whether you meticulously plan both plot and character, or whether you just start writing and see where it takes you. I’m a barfer. I do not make outlines. I do not create character sheets until after the story is completely done, then I use them to add more depth to a character with small details. I do not know how a novel or story will end when I begin it. I don’t even know how it will begin until I start to put words together on a page.

At a writer’s conference on word-crafting I attended last spring, one of the speakers waived her hand airily and said something to the effect of “Unless you are that 1% of writers who just sit down and write a novel, then you will need an outline and will have pages of character profile before you begin.” Well, I’m in that 1% I guess, and that doesn’t make me special (maybe odd), but it might be the reason I have a very different view of characters being in control of the story. I find myself wondering what they will do to get out of a situation, or why they chose to do the thing they did when faced with an obstacle. BUT, this is not a negative thing. It is not “hijacking”. This is my creative mind exploring a story/ theme by watching a character unfold under my pen, using very little logical or even conscious thought. What my poor characters end up doing shapes the plot for me, not the other way ’round.

I remember saying something like, “Why did Sacha talk like that to the old man! It got her into so much trouble!” to my husband, and him looking at me askance, as though perhaps I had developed a personality disorder. But it was true. She led me to that place by what she said in that situation, and it’s what moved my plot forward. Of course I understand Sacha is not real, but she is a conglomerate of real people, myself included, that I’ve met and known over the years, and those pieces surface and build, shaping a character who, when given an obstacle, will behave in a certain way, and I don’t know what that obstacle is, or how she will deal with it, until I get there.

Maybe I write like this because, as a reader, I like books that are heavily character driven, rather than plot driven. I could read a whole book where nothing happens, and love it, if the writing is rich and the characters deep–I mean, think of Cast Away. NOTHING happens there, yet we were all enthralled (I know, it’s a movie. Not sure it was a book. But Life of Pi could be kind of the same idea, trapped on a boat without a lot of plot going on).

In any case, I know writers can and do achieve rich characters and fabulous writing both with outlines, and also without.

What are your thoughts or experiences?

2 thoughts on “Deep Thoughts on Characters that Won’t Behave

  1. This could be compared to other arts. When I paint in watercolor, the beginning is often an application of color on on wet paper. As shapes randomly form, I follow their lead which sometimes suggests a subject, sometimes just a demand for more darks and different colors to enhance what’s happening. Jazz musicians let the feeling of the moment direct their music, and what about improv theater? The creation often directs the maker as to what it needs and what it will become.


  2. I am not an outline kind of a girl either. I’ll have a general idea of what I want to say and how I’m going to say it when I start… but usually what happens is the words stack up differently than I expected them to, and I’m cool with that. The words know what they’re doing. It’s when I start fighting them that I have the most problems.

    That’s how I go about writing anything–a story, my blog, a newspaper article, our annual Walker Family Christmas Form Letter, this comment. To each their own. But you’re totally doing it wrong, Mr. Ryan guy, just FYI. 😉

    P.S. What do you mean, Sacha isn’t real?!


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