When characters go their own way
Something I remember after I finished the first draft of my fifth novel, 'After She's Gone' - how, along the way, something odd occurred. Many, if not all, other fiction writers report it's happened to them too; it's a concept that sounds a little off the wall, a bit wacky, at first. Readers who are not also writers tell me it's hard to understand, and I can see why. I'm talking about the tendency of fictional characters to resist doing what the author wants. Instead, just like real people, they often refuse to do what they're told, developing minds of their own and behaving in very contrary ways! Fiction writers will know what I mean. For others, though, this is a weird notion. 'But you're the author!' they say. 'Aren't you in control? Why not just make the characters do what you'd planned for them?' The answer is, I can't, not always. Let me explain.
As a novelist, I’m an outliner, plotting my books in a fair amount of detail before I write them. As part of my planning, I prepare notes about each character - their motivations, their hopes, their issues, along with a physical description and a precis of their role in the plot. After I've done that, I tell myself I know them quite well, but the truth is, I don't. It's not until I start writing that they take on lives and minds of their own, and sometimes those minds decide to follow a different route through the novel. If this all sounds a bit woo-woo, it is and yet it isn't. In one way, there's nothing mystical about what I'm describing. However carefully an author plots in advance, it's impossible to foresee every eventuality, and it's not until the writing begins that a novelist finds out whether his/her story works. What may appear feasible at the planning stage can unravel once written; inconsistencies and contradictions appear or the plot simply doesn't feel right. The same happens with characters. I'll explain by using Jake Hamilton, a minor player in 'After She's Gone'.
When I plotted the novel, Jake was a poor father, a lousy partner and an all-round deadbeat. As I wrote one particular scene, however, something didn't sit well with me. The storyline would work better, I decided, if I portrayed Jake as flawed in many ways, yet ultimately a man trying to do his best. Someone who regretted his past mistakes. So that's what I did. Nothing woo-woo about that, simply an author recognising that a different approach would suit the novel better. On the other hand, though, Jake asserting his true character provided a magical moment. It was as if he was shouting at me, trying to get my attention, yelling, 'Hey! You behind the keyboard! You've got me all wrong - I'm more of a nice guy than you give me credit for!'
I hear you, Jake! And once I did, I changed my story accordingly. Characters don’t exist independently from an author's fiction, of course, however real they may become to a writer. The chances are, though, that if a character is pressing to go in a particular direction, then that's the best course for him/her to take. Here's novelist Dianne Doubtfire on the subject: 'Sometimes a character becomes so real that he refuses to do what you have planned for him. When this happens, don't coerce him; it means you have created a real person with a will of his own and this is a marvellous moment in any novelist's life. Hold him on a light rein, as it were, giving him his head to a certain degree but ensuring that he does not stampede you out of your story.' (Dianne Doubtfire, The Craft of Novel-Writing, published by Allison and Busby, 1978). Wise advice, Dianne - thank you! Oh, and a big thank you also to Jake Hamilton - I'm glad I listened to you!
What do you think? Let's hear from you!
Are you a fellow novelist who's had characters run out of control and do their own thing? Or are you a reader, someone who doesn't understand why authors can't exercise complete authority? Are there fictional characters who you think would have been more convincing if they'd been portrayed differently? Leave me a comment and let me know!
'After She's Gone' is available from Amazon in ebook, paperback and audio formats via this link: After She's Gone.
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