Do you have control over your characters?

I had a very interesting conversation a few weeks ago at my writers society meeting. The topic of discussion was “Why do you write?”, and … well, here’s basically what I said (in bullet points for your convenience!):

  • I first really got into writing when I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and was absolutely devastated that Sirius Black died
  • This prompted me to pen a 300k word fanfiction in which Sirius and James come back to life and get up to all sorts of shenanigans with Harry
  • ThisΒ prompted me to try my hand at writing original fiction, since I discovered that writing was actually something I really enjoyed doing

The writers society president summed this up as “You like to have control over your characters and their fates”, which is true. Of course, I have other reasons for why I write — I love to entertain people, I love the act of writing itself, stories pile up in my head and take up way too much brain space if I don’t get them down on paper, etc. But the fanfiction anecdote was what I went with for the meeting.

Anyway, after the president’s “you like control” statement, another lady at the meeting spoke up. Her speech essentially boiled down to:

  • You can try to control your characters all you want, but they’re going to do whatever theyΒ want, regardless of what you try to make them do

It’s an interesting suggestion, but … I’m not sure I agree with her. I mean, yes, sometimes my characters do things I don’t want them to as I write a scene, but it’s not because they’ve magically taken control of my fingers and are forcing me to change the direction of the scene. Usually it’s because I imagined the scene playing out one way in my mind, but when I actually get down to writing the scene, events just flow in a different direction. But that’s writing — what you see in your head and what you put down on paper rarely match up perfectly.

Then again, I’ve spoken to writers who feel that stories are living things — or, sometimes, even supernatural messages from the beyond — and that the writer is just the conduit to get that story down onto paper. They make it sound like writing is an almost spiritual experience. For me, though, stories are just … you know, stories. I love writing them, sure, but it’s not like I’m going to suffer some sort of psychological or emotional torture if I don’t get them out of my head. Well, as my mother likes to say, different people are different. I kind of envy the people who are so driven to write that they feel possessed … but at the same time, I can’t help but feel that would be a terrifying way to live, not being in control of your own mind. I don’t know.

What do you guys think? Does the story control you, or do you control the story? Who determines the fate of your characters — you, or them?


Unrelated media of the day:

Two guys play one cello and it’s sort of awesome. No, they’re not gay. But the seated guy’s expression is nevertheless fabulous.


Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , | 57 Comments

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57 thoughts on “Do you have control over your characters?

  1. kathils

    I’m one of those whose characters take over and do totally unexpected things that, occasionally, wreak havoc with my plot. I won’t say writing is a spiritual experience for me. I do it because I’d likely go mad if I didn’t have a way to silence the voices in my head, clamoring for me to tell their tales. Where do the ideas come from? Who knows. Are they living things? In the sense that they grow and change, or languish and die if I don’t pay attention to them…yes.

    • I used to have no problem with my characters going off in random directions … the problem is that I’ve recently tried this whole “plotting” thing, and … man, characters with a mind of their own really gets in the way of sticking to an outline, lol.

      • kathils

        I can’t do plotting for that very reason. So I try ‘noting’. Not as structured as a plot and very flexible. πŸ™‚

      • I have to follow the characters and write intuitively, leaving the plotting for a later draft.

  2. I think it’s a 50/50 split. Some scenes go exactly how I pictured them while others have the characters going in a different direction. One could easily say that the story is an organic, living thing because it’s in our head. Somewhere in our mind this tale is growing and evolving even when we’re not consciously thinking about it. A character might grab at something that you just saw on television because it fits their personality and habits. They might refuse to do something because it’s against their previous actions. While it takes the appearance of the characters taking control, it’s closer to say that an author’s subconscious takes the reigns after realizing something the conscious brain missed.

    • That’s an excellent point! More than once I’ve been just wandering around listening to music, gotten a brainwave, thought back to a scene I wrote months ago, and thought, “That scene is wrong. It needs to be like ____.” The human subconscious is a truly remarkable force! Although sometimes I wish it would shut up and let me follow my freakin’ outline, because it makes it really hard to actually finish things, lol.

      • The destruction of an outline can be a real pain in the ass. Even worse when it messes up the outline of the next book in a series.

        • And then you have to ask yourself if messing with the outline is truly necessary, or if there’s some way you can work in your revelation about your character in a way that won’t totally destroy all your carefully laid plans πŸ™‚

          • I’ve wondered that, but then I find myself forcing things to go in a direction that doesn’t feel natural. Unfortunately, I can’t tell the future even with my stories because some things change in the spur of the moment.

    • Excellent point, Charles. Stories are Darwinian & like Michelle says, the human subconscious is a truly remarkable force. I’m continually surprised by what it can do and am trying to schedule more downtime to let it work away, unhindered.

      • Me too. Funny how some of our best ideas can come to us when we’re doing something else. Though, I wish it wasn’t always the shower or when I’m about to fall asleep.

  3. David Emprimo

    It’s interesting you should mention this. I’m going through this right now with my third book. Went into it, had it all plotted out — then one of my characters goes and reveals something that changes not just the plot of this book, but the books that came before. I’m tempted to just cut it and save myself a lot of headache in rewrites, but I’m just as intrigued by this development as I hope my readers will be. You know, once I figure it out for myself..

    • Hey, it happens! Hmm … it’s tricky when it doesn’t just affect your current book, but past books as well. If it’s a really intriguing idea, you should definitely explore it … but is there maybe a way you can tweak it so that you don’t have to go back and change past books? Make it a sort of new development?

  4. I might need a whole blog post to respond to this one!

    My thoughts on this are basically that we should be in control, but that if we give our characters back-stories, strong personalities and desires and motivations, they’re not always going to do what we want– or if they do, we’ll see that it’s falling flat because it’s not right for them. So in that way, yeah, a well-developed character will definitely forge his own path through a story, because the writer’s subconscious mind will direct him to do what’s right for him, not what the plot she planned out dictates.

    If my characters aren’t doing what I want, I need to go back and work on their pasts and motivations so that it makes sense for them to do what I want. I HATE having to do this, but sometimes that’s what it takes to make a strong story that also makes sense.

    • By all means, blog post away! πŸ™‚

      I totally get what you mean. I run into that problem a lot — I want my character to do something to forward the plot, but when I actually write the scene, they just … don’t do what they’re supposed to, because of who they are. My usual solution is to shift around the scene so that they still get around to the plot point, but they just do so in a different way that’s a bit more true to their personality.

  5. I’ve found that I can make characters do whatever I want on paper, but that doesn’t make it /true/. There are things they simply wouldn’t say or do, responses they just wouldn’t give, either with intent or on reflex.

    Some characters (hopefully relegated to side and background roles only) are only living props to keep the story going where it should, but others are people — maybe they showed up in my head that way, or maybe it was only after much authorial love and attention and journeys of personal growth that the “puppets” became “real boys”. However they got there, the fact remains that one person can only control another so much. I can manipulate, I can guide, I can throw things in their path to herd them toward what I want for the plot. But the choices will be theirs. …which makes my job that much easier, that much harder, and soooo much cooler. (:

    • Hmm, very true. We control the story, but at the same time we owe it to ourselves and to the story to make sure the story proceeds the way it’s meant to. I’ve noticed that, when I’m trying to get through a scene that’s crucial to the plot but maybe not necessarily something I’m super interested in writing (you know, the obligatory “they went from A to B” scene, or whatever), my characters have a tendency to lack a certain … spark. Luckily I have my beta readers, who have no qualms about circling entire sections and writing “character is too whiny and emo, rewrite”, and so on πŸ™‚

  6. Oh, my characters are out of control. I tried an outline once for one of my books, and the three main components went out the window when my characters took the story in a completely different direction.

    I think, for me, it isn’t so much that they take over (even though it feels that way), it’s simply when I think about my story, I envision it one way. When I’m writing my story, and I actually see the events unfold in my mind (all movements, dialogue, scenes), the “movie version” is much better than my original thoughts. It feels like my characters take over, but they really don’t.

    That guy standing up needs to get his own cello. πŸ™‚

    • Hahaha he certainly does. I like that at first the seated cellist is very calm and just having a mellow time playing, and then the second guy kind of sidles over and starts plucking a few strings and everything’s still fairly zen … and then the standing guy gradually wraps himself around the seated guy like a blanket until they’re basically merged together with their instrument. If they were on a date, I would applaud standing guy for his smooth moves πŸ˜€

      Right! Back to the actual subject. I definitely agree about the book you see in your head and the book that comes out on the page being totally different. Sometimes I’ll write a scene, and as I write it, I know I’m not writing it the way I want to … but then I go back and read it and, although it’s different from what I imagined, it’s still pretty decent, you know?

      As for outlining … I’m trying that more and more, because I’m just abysmal at remembering details and my characters therefore have a tendency to go so far as changing their own names without me noticing if I don’t keep track. It’s actually kind of interesting — I’m working on two stories right now, one which I’ve outlined half-to-death, the other which I have absolutely no end game for and am just sort of having fun writing whatever comes to mind. It’s all a bit confusing, lol.

  7. I think as characters develop, they begin to do things that you mightn’t have thought they would be up for when you were just beginning to know them. They become layered and with that comes surprises.

    • Very true! Each time you reveal something new about a character, they change just a little bit, and your view of them shifts ever so slightly. Where I run into trouble is that, when I don’t plan ahead for a story, I reveal little details throughout the story and then I have to go back and revise the character at the start of the book so all the details I revealed are actually reflected in the way they act πŸ™‚

      • I understand that. I’m not a great planner either: I have the general plot but details come as I go. It results in many drafts. I’m hoping I will become more efficient at this.

  8. It seems the more I plan the more they rebel.

  9. I think it can go both ways: the characters take control sometimes, and sometimes the scene doesn’t necessarily play out the way you originally envisioned it. But I do believe that whichever way the writing takes me, I have to follow–just to see what’s going to happen!

    • True! With writing, you pretty much have to just chill and go with the flow πŸ™‚ Otherwise you drive yourself crazy trying to control everything.

  10. I agree with Charles…it’s a split. I always have a rough idea where I’m taking a character but I like to do the ‘what if he turned left instead of right’ exercise.

    • That’s a fun idea! The problem with that exercise is that I spent several years writing fanfiction, so I worry that if I start “what if”-ing my original stories, I might start slipping back into that fanfiction mindset and do something silly.

  11. For me, the answer is both (and it’s something I explored in my own novel). Your characters do have lives of their own, and you are the archaeologist/psychologist who is discovering that world/character/story. Character will often take the story in an entirely new direction that ultimately fits their, well character, better.

    In a way, it *is* a matter of not knowing your own mind (who can plumb the depths of their own imagination?), but it’s also allowing that character (aka idea) to develop in a way that your conscious mind simply can’t fathom at the outset.

    It happens in other areas of life, too. How many times have people in business said, “When I started out, I never imagined I’d end up here.” Yet they are the same ones who believe they’re the masters of their own destiny. πŸ˜‰

  12. I like to have a plan and use it to steer my characters along their journey, but they often decide to turn right when I insist they turn left. I might steer them back eventually, but the tangents are great fun!

    • Tangents are fantastic! And the great thing is that they can always be cut out later in the editing stage if they don’t contribute as much to the story as you thought they would. I think I actually have a tendency not to tangent as much as I should — in the editing stage, I’m forever going back and adding in tangents to flesh out the story πŸ™‚

  13. You basically summed up my experience, “I imagined the scene playing out one way in my mind, but when I actually get down to writing the scene, events just flow in a different direction. But that’s writing β€” what you see in your head and what you put down on paper rarely match up perfectly.” And often the way I see it in my head is so much better than I can get down on paper, but that’s another reason I write. I have to try and keep trying and maybe once (but hopefully more than once, of course) I’ll get it right! πŸ™‚

    • Yes!!! I’ve actually had writing sessions where I’m typing, and trying to turn a scene from my head into words, and things just aren’t going right, and then I’m hit with this crippling sense of failure that I’ll never get the scene right. But then I get a nice, bracing cup of tea, tell myself to stop being so melodramatic, and get on with things πŸ˜€

      • Yeah and sometimes I stress myself out before I even start thinking I’ll never write it as good as it looks/sounds in my head. But you’re right, you just have to get on with it! That’s the fun part anyway. Usually, no matter how much I stumble or how much rewriting I may need to do afterwards, getting it out of my head and onto paper is the best part!

  14. I think it’s a little bit of both, like you said. πŸ™‚ Like, the characters often live their own lives in my head–they tell me what they would do, how they should act, etc. But it’s still within the framework of what I’VE created as far as story and plot, and it’s not like they’re going to totally change the game or anything. So, yeah. I know what you mean.
    And it’s funny, but I literally CAN’T remember what got me into writing again. It’s a blur. I wrote a story in 4th grade that my teacher raved about; then I don’t remember writing a thing until a poorly-attempted story in 6th grade, and then again, absolutely nothing until I started messing with romance stories in 10th grade. Why did I start doing that? I can’t remember. I’m sure it probably stems from fanfiction too, but it’s kind of weird. xDD

    • I think you will quickly discover that, in life, everything stems from fanfiction.

      Yes, I know. Very deep. You may bask in my wisdom if you wish.

  15. I don’t think my characters take control of my story. However, I do think that sometimes I plan them doing something that, when I get to that scene, I realize they wouldn’t do. They become real people to me, like I understand how they would react to something, and when that happens I can’t go ahead and write them doing something I really don’t think they’d do, even if it’s necessary to the plot. That said, I don’t generally have that problem, where a character needs to do something to move the plot but won’t when it comes to that point. I plan in my head all the time, so if I see that situation coming up, I tend to switch whatever character is supposed to move the story at that point. If one guy wouldn’t do a certain thing, I give it to one who would.

    So I think I have control of the story, plot, events, etc, but the characters definitely have some veto power, at least to me. I have found that some of my characters have changed my story in ways that I love. It’s one of my favorite things about getting to know a new character, wondering what the heck they’re going to do and realizing it might change everything.

    When I first started the story I’m working on now, my fisherman was an unformed side character, and now he is one of the most important people in the book and my favorite character. If I’d stuck to my plan for him, that wouldn’t have happened. Letting him do what he wanted to do gave my story a new path, one that I like a lot.

    Sorry, that was a lot of rambling. My point… I like to let them do what they’d do, and I find ways to make the plot work. Anything else feels like a disservice to the characters.

    • You make some excellent points! On the one hand, if you plan your story well enough, your characters shouldn’t be going off on random tangents because you would have already accounted for that during your planning process. On the other hand, I totally get what you mean about side characters just kind of jumping into the main story and going “HELLO! NOTICE ME! I’M AMAZING!”. My secondary characters tend to do that a lot – I’m thinking of a particularly sassy side character I had only featured in a chapter or two previously, but during my current re-write I’ve given her a much bigger role. Sass for the win!

      • πŸ™‚ yeah I like when that happens. It has happened with more than one of mine, but more with this one than the others. My planning is generally a shell that gets all filled in and reshaped while I write, so I think I have a lot of flexibility concerning characters and their actions. If they do something weird, no big deal!

  16. Some characters sit patiently waiting for me to create a journey for them other scream like toddlers until I notice, and once a character haunted my dreams taunting me he had a secret until finally he told me and it was so freaky because it was almost as if he were next to me whispering it in my ear and the surprise was a plot twist that I had no idea of before. πŸ˜€ love the cello guys

    • Very cool! See, I don’t know if I envy you for having characters reveal secrets in your dreams, or if I’m glad I’m not you, because that sounds absolutely terrifying, lol.

  17. I suppose it depends on whether or not my characters are fully developed in my head prior to putting them on paper (or on screen as the case may be). For me, writing a story with well-rounded and fully conceived characters is simply a matter of creating a scenario and placing them within it. Based on who they are, they will respond accordingly.

    With newer characters, I’m finding out who they are through the writing process. So at times they may say or do things I don’t expect. So in that sense, the emerging character helps to push the story forward. πŸ™‚

    So I think there’s a degree of control that I have over my characters in that I determine all that they may encounter. But I don’t always determine, or at least I don’t have foreknowledge of, exactly how they might react. Does that make sense? πŸ˜›

    • It does πŸ™‚ I really like what you said about throwing new characters into a situation, seeing how they react, and then learning more about them as a result. I do something similar, especially when I throw in a random secondary character to liven up a scene — sometimes the characters serve their purpose and fade away, and sometimes they impress me with how interesting they are and therefore win recurring roles as a result πŸ™‚

  18. thebaffledkingcomposing

    Okay, two comments on your blog in one day, but… πŸ™‚
    I never had a character get away from me before doing NaNoWriMo this past November. I had planned out an ending to the book, and everything was going along perfectly until I sat down and decided that two of my characters needed to talk before the big finale…and what one of them said (which I totally hadn’t been expecting) changed the entire ending of the novel. I was SO surprised, as I’d had the ending planned out from the beginning. But now I’m not even sure what the old ending was because I liked the one that I wrote spontaneously after this character spoke so much better.
    I think some of this might have been because of the pace that NaNoWriMo forces you to write at, which made me write down all sorts of things I wasn’t sure about or hadn’t planned. It’s certainly never happened to me under any other circumstance
    It’s a really great topic, and one worth of lots of discussion (which you’ve started very nicely here!)

    • Two comments!!! Good grief.

      See, that’s very interesting about your NaNo story — and I can’t help but wonder if that was really your characters getting away from you, or it was more that you’d hastily planned out one ending, but after writing through the entire story, your subconscious was like “Nope, that ending sucks, this one’s better”.

      • thebaffledkingcomposing

        That’s entirely possible! I think I liked either, but the one I ended up using was more complex and had the voices of more than one of my characters in it, so I ended up liking it better. The subconscious probably has a lot to do with this stuff—especially when you haven’t given yourself time to fully work it out in your conscious mind.
        Thanks for the great read πŸ™‚

  19. I wouldn’t say writing leaves me totally possessed, but my characters and their story can have a big grip on me. If they didn’t, then I am not interested in writing their story. I think if I were possessed, then I am completely excited – as in bouncing off the walls excited. That hasn’t happened yet, and I may get there someday. Until then, I will allow my characters to whisper to me.

    • I like that phrase — they have a grip on you. It’s really true, isn’t it? Sometimes you just get an idea in your head, and you just keep thinking about it all the time, even when you’re definitely supposed to be focusing on something else. πŸ™‚

  20. Good point. If, as they saying goes, writing is an organic process, then characters are organic beings, which eventually grow up and take on a life of their own.

    • I’m only worried about the point when they band together, figure out how to leap off the page into real life, and then begin a systematic dismantling of society and overtake the world.

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