When the characters take over

When characters take over blogI’m sure I’m not the only author this happens to. You’re getting along nicely with your WIP, progressing from one plot point to another, by way of some juicy conflicts. Then all of sudden, the words flowing onto the page are not what you expected. Your character grabbed the plot in both hands and ran in a totally different direction with it. Or took one look at what was coming and turned themselves into a living(ish) embodiment of writer’s block.

Uh-huh. You must be crazy; there’s no way I’d do that.

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Yeah. In any other walk of life, we’d be quietly ushered away to see a specialist. But for an author, the voices in our head sometimes just… take over.

What do I do?

There are several options, and I’ve tried most of them at some point:

  1. Cry. And/or beat your head repeatedly against a convenient flat surface.
  2. Force the characters to do what you want. You created them, dammit; they will succumb to your will no matter how much they plead it’s out of character. Write anything from a couple of paragraphs to several pages of stilted, awkward story until you realise this isn’t going to work.
  3. Realise this is not necessarily a bad thing, and roll with it.

Embrace the character who takes over

This may seem a little counter-intuitive, but bear with me.

While it can throw a bit of a spanner in the works, and probably will take a bit of thinking to resolve, the fact your character is playing fast and loose with your story plan is actually a good thing.

Because it means they’re a well-developed character. They have a personality, with flaws and strengths and goals and dreams. If there’s something in your original idea which simply doesn’t work for the personality you have developed, trying to write it regardless will not work for your story (hence option 2). It will come off as unbelievable, or poorly thought out. In fact, out of character. You may have heard that all good stories should be character-driven; it may not be 100% true, as characters and plot depend on each other to make a decent story (and yes, there are always exceptions). But even in a book where plot is given greater importance, consistent and believable characterisation is only going to improve the end product.

So, when your story’s events don’t work with the character and they twist out of shape as a result, well, that’s character-driven writing happening right there on your page. Instead of beating yourself up about it, congratulate yourself!

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Which is all very well, but still leaves you with a yawning gap between what you intended to happen in the story and what is now going on.

How to bridge the gap

Now, a lot of this will depend on how much detail you had the story plotted in. I’m a bit of an obsessive planner; for Abriny I had a detailed scene-by-scene spreadsheet to keep track of what all the characters were doing and how the various plot lines tied together. I say “had” because it’s been getting progressively more useless for the last 60,000 words or so, since the characters became the driving force. The choices they make, actions they take, even what comes out of their mouths, make sense for them in the situations I’ve put them in, but doesn’t always match up with what I planned all those months ago before I really got to know them.

So it does leave me floundering a bit. If I’d not had such a detailed plan to begin with, I might have been able to follow where the characters took me without nearly so much panic, head-scratching and re-thinking. Of course, as any pantser will tell you, seeing where the writing takes you does lead to more extensive rewriting and revision, but its a perfectly valid way of coming up with a story.

But I have a plan. I know what needs to happen to get the story where it needs to go. And now I have to find a different way of getting there. It’s still not necessarily a bad thing, but it will require a bit of flexibility. The perfectionist in me is still working on that.

But this is what I have come up with so far:

  • I’ve broken down my overall plot outline into very brief chapter summaries. Literally, one or two lines, to fit onto the little notecards on Scrivener’s corkboard. These may not correlate to the chapters in the finished product, but they break the story down into episodes linked by the stage of the story. For example, one chapter might be about setting things in motion for an impending disaster, the next about the disaster unfolding, and the next about the characters struggling with its consequences.
  • Then, as I come to each chapter in turn, I do the same for each scene, based on what has happened in the last few scenes for each character. These outlines are a little more detailed. And to come up with them, I often need to resort to pen and paper and my favourite question “what if” until I’ve come up with something which flows logically from the previous action, and still advances the plot in broadly the right direction.
  • I also plot out each scene in a little more detail just before I write it. That’s more to do with productivity and not losing sight of the conflict – I have a tendency to waffle when I don’t have a clear scene goal – but again if something unexpected happened in the previous scene it helps me to focus on the consequences.

I’ve seen this referred to as “headlights planning” – like driving at night, you can see just as far as the car’s headlights, and that’s far enough to keep going. So far it’s working out pretty well for me. Letting the characters have their heads is also turning out better than I could have hoped – just like real people, they rarely come up with the right answer, so their little bouts of free will are if anything, upping the tension and stakes of the story, and making their own lives all the more difficult.

And don’t we all love making things difficult for our darlings?

If you’re a writer, tell me in the comments about times when your characters have done something unexpected – and whether it turned out good or bad. And if you’re a reader – what do you think when you find a character acting in a way you don’t think they would, for the sake of the story? Is it enough to make you put the book down?


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