I’m probably in the minority on this one.
Sometimes writers talk about their characters as if they’re real people. And I don’t mean as in, “So and so did such and such,” I mean, they talk about their characters as if they are people with their own agency that the author has little control over.
You’ll hear things like, “I had big plans for what was going to happen, but then my character Suzy had other ideas!” or “Every time I sat down to write my novel, Suzy just made me take her to the craziest places.”
On the one hand, I get it. It can be sort of strange to write a character whose internal logic you learn to obey. You might plan your novel ahead, but when you actually get down to writing it, you know your character’s motivations so well you realize your previous plans don’t make sense. It can feel like a character is gradually gaining control over your novel.
On the other hand, who is writing this novel?? Who are these characters that are outside of these writers’ head and outside of their control?
Confession: it kiiiiiiiiiiiind of weirds me out.
Am I alone on this one or are there others out there like me?
Art: An Eunuch’s Dream by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ
Meredith Towbin says
I was stuck in the middle of writing one of my novels–couldn't decide where to go next–and somebody suggested I interview one of my main characters. So I did. Whatever the question was that I asked, "my character" kept answering the same thing over and over again. It was insane. I was insane. It didn't help at all and it just made me feel like I wasn't a "real" writer because my characters wouldn't "talk" to me. Or, more accurately, my characters were idiots. Did that mean I was an idiot? Ugh, so conflicted.
Lady Jewels Diva® says
Of course it happens and there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with it.
For me it makes it more real. I use real life actors as the inspiration for my novels and place myself in them as the female lead. It means the feelings and emotions will be more real because I'm feeling them, that experiences will be more real because I've been through them and there is nothing wrong with that.
My experiences writing has been slightly different from novel to novel. The first played like a movie in my head and I wrote as it came. The second and third I wrote a brief synopsis of each chapter and what I wanted out of it and then let the story flow in my head. The third was a vague idea and I certainly had no idea where it was going to go.
I think when your muse strikes the best way is to let her take you where it's supposed to go. You can't really control a story because your mind will continually come up with new ways of killing someone or getting out of a situation. Your brain is constantly working and thinking and jumping ahead so you may or may not know where it's going.
Many authors write like this, Jackie Collins for example. It clearly works for her. And it works for me. While I may have a basic outline in my head of where I want it to go and how I want it to be.
Your imagination will flesh it out, and your characters being real people in your head, because you're writing about them, their feelings and their lives, immersing yourself in all things character, is not wrong and doesn't make it wrong. It's just another way of writing.
Michael Neff says
It's a subset of confusing fictional reality with actual reality. Writers get so invested that the plot and other elements become a living history to them. Everything from the set to the circumstances to the character's speech is recalled as if it actually took place, or at least, as if a film already produced and shot and rendered on the screen.
You're not alone on this one, Nathan 🙂
I sometimes dream about them as if they are real people.
Alana Roberts says
I'm with you, Nathan. It's weird and creepy and probably contributes to a lot of boring, incoherent books.
I was thinking about this and it seems likely that what happens is that people imagine a character very deeply, but (!!!) without taking into account what that character will be doing in the course of the plot (!!!) Then, a personality track is formed in the writer's brain.
Personality track. Like, you know how memories in the brain forge synaptic connections that turn into neurological "ruts"? Well, what I figure is that when you get to know a real person's characteristics, you end up with a memory "rut" that allows you to predict how that person will act. So, this writer who has formed a memory "rut" for a character is starting to have a similar experience. That's where the feeling kind of real comes from.
In real life, if we wrongly predict how someone will react to something, their real reaction will correct us, and then our picture of their personality will be enriched, broadened, or corrected – and we will become less rigid, less certain of our grasp on their personality, as they come to seem more complex to us. But this never happens with a fictional character, so, the same rut just gets deeper and more rigid and more insistent. It's an imaginative failure.
Now, I know you are too nice to say it that way, but that's how I see it. If my plot needs to diverge from how I imagine my character acting, I sit down and think about that character and imagine him doing that thing in the plot, and lo and behold, my memory-track for that character's personality-track gets corrected. I see deeper into his motivations and weaknesses then. Because that character IS the kind of person who does what the plot need him to do, and all it requires is some imaginative fortitude for me to reach the level of understanding where I can see that!
Of course the same thing can happen in reverse. If I really want my character to be the way I originally imagined him, I can re-imagine my plot to a certain extent. But, I try to keep in mind that while the plot is about the character, the story IS the plot. If I can't tell the story I wanted to tell, what good is that damn character to me?
If that feels like blasphemy or murder, then yes, you've blurred the distinction between reality and fiction WAY too much! LOL!
Natalie Wright says
I usually agree with your posts and most of the comments, but on this one maybe not. Or perhaps most writers experience this but describe it in a different way?
I think when writers are talking about "the character" taking over, what they're talking about is their conscious, ego-mind self being surprised by what the sub-conscious mind came up with during the writing process. It can feel like the "characters" took over and thus people describe it that way. But I think it is exactly what Stephen King refers to as the "boys in the basement" doing their work. For me, even though I've planned things out, when I get into the flow and the "boys in the basement" take over, the "characters" sometimes take me to places I didn't expect. Rather than this leading go "boring" stories (as one commenter stated), the stories in fact obtain twists and turns that surprise and delight readers as well as myself (as opposed to the predictable prose that is so common).
It's about being in the flow and letting go. And when it happens it's a beautiful thing and can feel as though the "characters" took over, but in fact it's still very much the writer but writing from that deeper place.
Now that doesn't mean that all of the material produced from this place is good. In the production of my last novel, I cut over 70,000 words (to get to the 108,000 final). But it's never wasted. Those forays lead to insights about character, setting, etc.
I suspect that most writers experience this but perhaps don't describe it the same way. And you haven't experienced it and think it's "crazy", maybe you should give it a try and see what happens 😉
Alana Roberts says
The writing that feels therapeutic or rapturous as it issues forth from the soul hardly ever results in material fit for public consumption. It is called self-indulgent art; it is the processed cheese of literature.
I am no stranger to inspiration. As a poet I've learned how to harness it. I've also learned how to distinguish between genuine inspiration and feel-good internal compulsion. The first is enlightening – when it appears, it produces understanding so that, when you make use of it in your writing, you still know what you are doing. You are still in authority. Following the lead of the second, on the other hand, merely produces a feeling of sedation as one gives in to unexamined urgentness. Ah, that feels good: though my novel's a mess, no one can understand my poem, or my collage art is offending half the civilized world with my outrageous concatenations, still, better out than in, right?
So let's make distinctions clear. The image of someone who thinks of herself as an 'author' while eschewing her own 'author'ity is the image of a plowman harnessed to his own plow while the horse stands by, idley pulling at clumps of grass. It is one of those amusing reversals that become excellent comic material in the hands of merry persons who are not, like me alas, irremedial curmudgeons in training.
It is not, however, best practice for producing coherent written works.
J.S. Johnson says
I don't do this. Some people have asked me about my characters, and I usually begin with, "I wanted to create a character who…" Occasionally I'll lapse into the 'he/she' vernacular, but never to the point that I attribute control over what I'm writing to the characters. Sounds a little weird and possibly dangerous, honestly.
I'm a firm believer that characters are constructs of people and personalities that we know or idealize. That being said, I think it's really hard on a writer to write from 'inside' the story too much.
All of that being said, though, I think it's natural for a writer to exult in the characters' triumphs and agonize in their defeats. It's how we attach ourselves to the story, and if we can't then the reader certainly won't.
To me it's more funny than anything else, a writer saying a character has a mind of its own. It's like when actors say they can't shake off a character, that it has a 'grip' on them!
Alana Roberts says
Ah… interesting, Julia. Maybe this is the writer's equivalant to "method acting."
I must confess, I do talk about my characters as if they are real people, to the point where I told someone, "it took my character three years to tell me his backstory, and he only told me when I promised not to explicitly tell the readers."
But if I thought about them as real people I'd feel much more guilty about putting them through so much hell. So with me it's a balancing act between thinking of them as real and acknowledging them as creations which I control.
Writing is a wonderful, semi-controlled form of personality dissociative disorder.
If you've been a part of a critique group for a long time, it gets worse. You'll make a mistake for the millionth time and another voice pops in your head – one of your fellow writers who always calls you on that error.
"That's not what a semicolon is for," the voice says.
Get out of my head!
I was going to agree with your post but then my characters told me that it would be a lie. 😉
I have my books plotted out but there have been some details that have surprised me as I tried to think what the different characters would do in those particular circumstances.
@Charli Armstrong – I agree with you about the Sims! I think that game is a good analogy.
Naomi Bellina says
Yep, I also get a little weirded out when people go into great detail about how their characters take control. It's kind of like a Twilight Zone episode is happening.
Lynn Viehl says
Our character constructs should be like real people to us in all ways possible, and whatever creative things we do that helps us breathe life into them on the page is part of the process. So while I don't talk about my characters as if they're real people, no judgment here on anyone who does.
What bothers me is when the lines between fiction and reality start to blur for a writer. Someone who jokes about going out shopping for their character is probably just being funny. Someone who actually goes out and buys a gift for their character may be in trouble.
Dave Cantrell says
I am a new writer and have not published yet. I'm just in the process of editing my first novel. The idea that my characters are writing the novel is weird to me also. However,I have found, as I'm editing, that I'm asking myself would the character do or say the things in particular scene. Which is a little bit like your issue.
By the way I like your book "How to Write a Novel." It helped me immensely and got me off my fat ass. Thank you.
inklings Anon says
If your book is character driven and not plot driven then this should happen naturally where your character dictates the plot. It proves your character is strong. But then you have to step back and realized, hey I created you now get back on the page. I guess I don't know anyone who is that out of control though that they don't know where the character ends and the author begins. It's like that saying: the difference between an author and a schizophrenic is…
I am someone who tries to outline a plot and then often finds that it just doesn't work because of the way I've drawn the characters, and as a writer I'm much better at creating dynamic characters than interesting plots. But that's just me. When I was first writing, I did talk about characters like they were real people for this reason. After a couple of books, I too decided that it was creepy, sort of like married couples calling each other "Ma" and "Pa" when the kids aren't around. I don't know why. I think the more you write, the more skill you develop and the more in control you feel, and then the less you see characters as having their own agency. I don't know what's going on with seasoned writers who do it, but I'll join you in saying it weirds me out.
K. C. Blake says
Sometimes I will say, "I hate (character's name), and I want to kill them." But I try not to say that in public.
Omg u are so not the only one. I often do that without even realizing I even did it. I even talk to them like they are with me and talking to me. Sometimes I even get mad at them. Eg “Kate ( my character) said she was mad and I was like what’s wrong and I litterally start having a conversation with them like they were my friend
They are real, I mean real to me, but they don’t refuse to act the way I want to make them act. They visit me all the time in dreams these days, though, and sometimes I wake up with kind of a new thought process I may implement later on in the series. Is that too weird?