When The Characters Are In Charge

Over the years, I’ve heard many authors describe their books as having come into being by some variation of this: “A character appeared and I followed.”

Once upon a time, I found such explanations slightly frustrating: I had always longed to write a novel, and I even had the basic idea for a mystery in mind, but no characters were manifesting themselves and beckoning to me.

So I wrote other things—poems, short stories, and essays—but the novel was always The Dream. Cut to fifteen years later and a now-or-never moment that compelled me to finally sketch out an academic mystery. And one minute into outlining, I knew the entire English department. Professors appeared as if summoned, one right after the next, complete with names, appearances, specialties, and quirks. All those years of contemplating the premise had apparently lined them up like a scholarly football team ready to take the field at the slightest opportunity. I spent much time developing them further—sorting out histories, motivations, and purposes within the plot. Eventually they seemed so alive to me that, when I was deep in the drafting zone, writing their interactions was indeed akin to watching a film on some sort of invisible screening device or authorial inner eye.

Until two characters rebelled against the script.

About halfway through the book, after I’d written a section of dialogue, my spidey sense tingled: that’s not right. I tried a few more times to push the conversation forward, and the same thing happened. Baffled, I frowned at the blinking cursor. Clearly, they didn’t want to say what I wanted them to say.

My initial response was something along the lines of I’m in charge, remember? We have an outline, people, and we have places to get to!  But we had come to a halt. So I veered into experiment mode, writing the opposite of what I had planned. Suddenly, the scene began to flow, the dialogue sparked, and there was an infusion of vibrancy all around. Plus, I realized that this particular conversation was now crucially important to the mystery, and it was better the way my characters wanted it. Ultimately, this changed the entire plot. And I discovered that there’s a powerful exhilaration that comes from letting go, trusting the characters, and ending up somewhere you didn’t know you were going.

As a writer, how have you been surprised by your characters? Or, as a reader, how has a character surprised you?


23 thoughts on “When The Characters Are In Charge

  1. I’ve had this happen to me quite a few times while writing, most recently in my fan fiction. I know the world’s characters well enough to know how they’ll react to a given situation, and had a plan for one of them, I just wasn’t sure how I was going to articulate it on paper. The next thing I know, in the middle of writing a scene, a slightly different idea came to mind for her, and I decided to run with it. The basic “backstory” to the idea is the same, it’s just not exactly the direction I had originally intended to go with it But I think I like this idea even better, now I can’t wait to see what she does with this new direction! 😀 (If only writing my original characters was this easy…)

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  2. Hey, Cynthia — I think this is so true. A lot of folks talk about whether they focus more on plot or character, both in terms of the genesis of stories and then in the crafting of them as well, but it’s not an either/or, of course. Each step of the way, I feel like I’m slowly juggling questions like, “If this happens, how WOULD this character react?” and then “If the character does this, what WOULD happen next?” and then “If that does happen, how would….?” Well, you see how it goes.

    It’s rare that I can outline a plot and have my characters agree to follow the path—to their credit, of course!

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    1. You’re so right, Art, that it comes up in conversations of both genre and craft. And I agree with you–they’re interconnected in the “juggling” (that’s such a perfect word for it). Sometimes I wonder why I outline at all since the final product ends up elsewhere, but…it makes me feel like I have somewhere to go, anyway.

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  3. First, Cynthia, I am coveting that pink typewriter. And love the GIFs! I hate to outline and usually I don’t know whodunnit until I’m well into the story. Or I change my mind because my intended culprit insists he or she is maybe a little crazy, but completely innocent. Then that character threatens a long appeal process and I award the Villain title to one who’s completely unprepared. So much easier.

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    1. Wouldn’t a pink typewriter be dreamy? Closest I ever came was a hot pink cover for my laptop. (Which cracked, sadly, so now I’m back to blah.) And you’re the one who inspired the GIFs Lisa, since you make such great use of them, so thank you! 🙂

      I’m giggling at the “so much easier” part following the shifting system of villainy.

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  4. I’ve heard authors say that many times. And considering how much I enjoy the books of the authors who say that, I figured they must be on to something.

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  5. Cynthia: “Ultimately, this changed the entire plot.” YES! Unexpected plot twists happen in real life all the time. It keeps things *interesting*! I think the same is true in our books. We drag the story down when we hold on too tightly to the reins 🙂

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    1. Hi Jane! Great question. How about: if you guess it, I’ll confirm? 🙂

      Though maybe not because we don’t want to become trapped in a This one? No. This one? No. conversation, like when I invited some people to guess something this weekend and it went on unsuccessfully for like an hour, and by the end, everyone was mad at everyone else.


  6. I loved hearing about your process! Most of my characters have been constructed, but there’s something so magical about a character just coming to you fully formed. The mother of the bride did that for me in the first book — and she said the darnedest things!

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