Writing Secrets: Characters who hijack the story

 In All About Writing

Should you allow your characters to run off with the story?

I was asked this again recently while teaching a Summer School course on fiction writing at a local university. It’s a romantic idea and people love the concept of it – these sentient creations, whom you’ve breathed into an independent life of their own.

It depends, I like to say. (I’m the decisive type.) It’s true, your story should flow out of the characters you create.  As British nineteenth-century novelist, Phyllis Bottome said: “If a writer is true to his characters, they will give him his plot.”

She’s not the only one to have said it. It was true then, and equally true now. Characters are story. The way they act, and react, to an impetus is what drives the twists and turns of any story. It relies on their personality, and the choices they make.

That’s at the planning stage. What happens when you’re halfway through, though? You may not have every stage of the journey mapped out, but you have your eye on a destination. You’re headed in one direction and your characters baulk.

Uh-uh, they say, we want to head in another direction. Do you follow?

Nabakov thought not. “That trite little whimsy,” he said, “about characters getting out of hand, it is as old as the quills. My characters are galley slaves.”

Perhaps I’m not as much of a slave driver as Nabakov, but I’m not completely laissez faire either. Listen to what your characters have to say: sometimes they’ll come up with an idea which is brilliant, and which still carries you forward (perhaps even more powerfully) towards the destination you envisage.

Say thank you very much and accept their suggestion. On the other hand, it might seem like a brilliant, original idea – yet it fails to carry your story forward. Then place it in the file of “lost ideas”. It may not be lost forever. You may use it to great effect in the next story you write.

And if they offer to take you in a direction which suggests a different destination altogether? Is the destination decidedly better? It had better be, if you accept the suggestion. It’s going to create an enormous amount of work at the rewrite stage. The scenes you’ve already written are going to need rewriting, to carry your new story forward. Seeds must be sown, details set up in order to be paid off later. In fact, you may need, in effect, to go back to the beginning and start again.

Or perhaps, you’ll ignore your characters, continue moving towards the destination they suggested at the planning stage, and save the new destination for another day.

Another one for the “lost ideas” file.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Treat your characters with utmost respect

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