As an agent I get to hear lots of different types of authors discuss their writing process and how they go about crafting a world, and especially the lives of characters.
One common refrain is that authors often go into a story with certain ideas about how the story is going to go, but all of a sudden, once characters really begin to come alive they take the story in a different direction altogether.
And this can really help out a story – while obviously the characters are only alive insasmuch as they’re in the author’s (living) head, this may be a way of expressing that the author is being true to the logic of a situation. The author has a sense of the character, and it’s important that the character’s actions are logically consistent.
At the same time, I always find it curious to hear authors so completely in thrall to their worlds and characters, and I start wondering, “Wait a second, who’s in charge here?”
Once the characters and worlds begin to take life it can be a danger if the author lets the characters take the story in a completely different direction. Willful characters can walk themselves straight out of a plot if the author loses touch with the story and instead just follows the characters’ whims.
My personal belief is that the story has to come first, but at the same time, I definitely think it’s important to listen to the inner logic of a character who is coming alive. Balance is everything.
How do you balance story while being true to a character?
Being a heavy plotter, I have it all worked out before I lay down word one. I've played it out so many times in my head, working through each scene with the characters to make sure it makes sense for me and to them, that I seldom deviate much from the story line once I start. I get all of those bugs (character idiosyncracies) worked out before they cause problems on the page and lead me astray. At least I like to believe it works that well.
Lydia K says
I feel like I'm 80% in control. Each scene has a bit of wiggle room, and I find the characters naturally want to go in certain directions. Sometimes I nix these movements, sometimes I'm so glad they popped up.
Elaine 'still writing' Smith says
When I pictured my characters for the first time they were whole and hugely self-opinionated. I saw the journey, the pit-falls, the highs and the lows.
I knew there was one aspect of Jess and Caleb's relationship I hadn't seen clearly and it bugged me for ages: why did things go, not briefly off the rails, but cataclysmically wrong?
I was watching the moon rise for the second time in December and I could see the problem mapped out in techni-colour. Then I didn't get why I'd ever felt unsure of the problem. Their realationship plummeted, not deep-south but polar.
Maybe we are a team?
I rarely create my characters. Rather, I discover them. One novel was nearly complete when my MC and the secondary MC actually seemed to rebel. It was as if they were asking me, "Just who do you think I am, anyway," or "I am not really like that, toughen me up." This turned one character, who was supposed to be the antagonist, into a hero at the end of the first novel of the four book series. Most of my characters seem to be waiting for me to cast them. They evolve according to the plot.
Cassandra Bonmot says
My characters are all a version of me. And, I control them.
Jimmy Ng says
I took a writing seminar from David Freeman. He's a screenwriter who lives in LA, but his techniques are about building depth both in story and character. I felt like I came out with a garage full of tools, knowing that I won't need them all in any one story.
But he does make use of a character diamond. You draw a square rhombus on paper and write character traits at each corner. He defined a character trait where it influences the character's view of the world. Traits such as homosexual or heterosexual, weak or strong, brave or fearful, man or woman, will have an effect on how a character will see themselves and their outside world.
Freeman suggests having at least three but no more than five traits. And then you build scenes off of those traits.
He cautions that you don't have traits like being brave and strong, or love and loyalty because on paper they tend to look similar. And you don't want to have opposite traits like weak and strong because they'll cancel themselves out.
So once I have these traits, I let my characters 'run' free, keeping in mind the story, plot, themes, etc.
I feel like it's an ongoing battle between me and the main characters. they want to do something, I want them to do something else. In the end, I decided to write the whole book, then come back and characterize their dialogue/ actions.
I invent characters and a scene.
Logic takes over. If I don't like where the story is headed, I back up and change a scene, then turn if over to the characters again. Often I end up with a good story that's not the one I started out to tell, but if like it, I keep it.
Characters get out of whack when you lose focus of what they really are, when you forget things, and don't write a good description of them.
A character organizer is a good tool for this. There is one in our text editor on our site that we created because we had this exact problem.
Meghan Ward says
This made me think of a funny column by Washington Post columnist Lisa de Moraes about Lost and its creators. She quotes Carlton Cuse:
"Ultimately, the way we look at it is that if the characters don't care about that question, then we as storytellers don't care about that question."
And responds: "Of course, what the characters do and do not care about is decided upon by . . . well, Cuse and Lindelof, come to think of it. Because the characters are, you know, not real people."
Here's the link: https://bit.ly/csCWUU
I obey the Muse and get to have my say-so in revisions!
— Dawn Metcalf
I had this exact problem, and went blissfully unaware, laboring under the misapprehension that my work was just "literary" and all was well.
A kind agent read the book and pointed out the situation. She gave me some great advice when she passed on the full, and encouraged me to do a rewrite–the character was witty, charming, and could take for days (and boy, did I let him)–but the story got lost while my one of my two main characters was busy charming the pants off everyone.
She wants to read it again when the rewrite is done, so I can't thank her enough.
Amorena Nobile says
A bit late to the party (post), but this is something I really felt like commenting on.
I often have almost no idea what my characters are like when I begin a novel. I decide what type of person my main characters are (gender, age, role in the story) and give them names, and that's all.
As a result, the first draft often becomes simply character development. I let the characters do what they want, telling me what they're like and what their story is. Once the first draft is done, I have a group of developed characters, but not a very usable plot.
The second draft is where I start pointing to pieces of the story, asking the characters if that's really what they want to happen. I feel the characters always know best, but sometimes they get carried away, so it's the author's job to rein them in. Often sometimes during the second draft is when the characters give me some truly wonderful ideas.
In my current project, two characters wanted to have a romantic relationship in the first draft, but when I came around to the second, they bit their lips and took a step away from each other. They're not entirely sure if they want to stay just friends forever, but whatever they decide, any romance is being saved for book two.
At the same time, a minor character that was little more than comic relief the first time around has become the deepest most likable character in the entire book, and I'm even writing his whole story as its own novel.
So, my characters and I are a team, working together to tell a story. They often are more excited about the book than even I am!
Cate Hogan says
Thank you for this great article! Setting up the story with intrigue and empathy is so important, something a lot of writers forget when they get swept up in the excitement of putting pen to paper. Here is an article I wrote called "Introducing a Character, Not a Bore" that I thought you might enjoy: https://catehogan.com/introducing_your_character/
This kind of thing annoys me to no end. As a struggling writer, I don't understand the concept of "characters take on a life of their own" or "characters do what they want". WTF does that even mean? How can a figment of your imagination, a construct of your own mind, that exists only as words on a page with no soul or corporeal form, do anything other than what you the author/ writer/ creator make them do? Writers talk about their characters like they exist without them and that they have hand in the creation or completion of the story. I call BS. I think that is just a way for people to make the writing process sound more interesting than it is. I believe that the story comes first. You start with a plot and you build character to facilitate that plot. They react to elements of the story in a way that serves the plot of the story. The goal of a story is to get the reader from Page 1 and Point A to the final page and point Z. The story doesn't write itself. If the writer doesn't pick up a pencil or type on a keyboard, nothing is going to happen. The writer is the captain of the ship and you can't tell me that something "unpredictable" is going to happen. The writer may have a new thought or re-examine the way a character acts or speaks, but nothing is actually going to happen if the writer doesn't put forth some mental effort. To say that the "characters take on a life of their own" is to discredit a writers own creativity.