Creativity · Writing

Misbehaving Characters

I posted a question on Twitter recently asking other writers if their characters had minds of their own. The answers were overwhelmingly “YES!”, with a few exceptions.

It’s funny to think about our characters coming to life like this. When I begin a first draft I usually don’t know much about my protagonist or the other characters. I have a vague idea of who they are, a gender (if pertinent), but rarely do I know their name, race, sexual orientation or identity. I’m basically working with a mannequin.

It’s not until the later drafts that this info comes to light, and even then, some of it doesn’t make it into the story. This is due to my writing style. I don’t like to plan things out in advance. I prefer to let the story dictate itself, along with the characters. In fact, the characters often change the direction of a story and send it off down some path I never would have considered.

To me, that’s more natural, more organic. Over-planning before I write makes me feel like my stories are sterile and generic. It’s like a lot of current music – overproduced, auto-tuned, sterile. Besides, knowing everything that’s going to happen before I type the first words ruins the surprise for me. This isn’t to say that planning is wrong. For some writers it’s the only way they can build a story, and I respect that. My personal preference is to go with a more improvisational approach, which is precisely the reason why my characters do their own thing.

Characters are like children in a way. We bring them into the world, set them on a path, the watch helplessly as they scamper off on their own accord. All we can do is chase after them and try to keep up. I’ll admit, the majority of my stories do not end up the way I thought they would. My characters see to that. I see a rough outline in my head, maybe a possible ending, then halfway through one of the drafts my protagonist decides they want to do something other than what I want them to do – turn left instead of right – and before I know it I’m writing a new scene and that original ending I hoped for is cast away on the wind.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. In fact, I think it makes writing more enjoyable. I like spontaneity. I like surprises. There’s a quote that goes something like, “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I agree with that statement. I like my characters to act up, to disobey, to forge their own path. More often than not, they help me to write a much better story than I would have originally.

I guess I own them for that.


One thought on “Misbehaving Characters

  1. Twitter isn’t a great place for an in-depth conversation on the topic. I suspect many of those folks are like me, and the character concept(s) simply becomes filled out mentally much faster than the actual story does. Hence, while I may originally think I’m going to have the character do X in a given situation, I figuratively hear them saying that given their personality, knowledge and experience, they’d do Y instead. That, in turn, can change the direction of the story. 🙂

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