My Characters are Not in Control

It is possible that I’m just a curmudgeon. Maybe there is no poetry left in my soul. But it drives me crazy when I hear people talk about their characters refusing to do something, or taking the story in an entirely new direction.

I think it’s because I have a pretty strong negative reaction to the categorization of anything mundane as mystical and ineffable. It just feels lazy to me. It’s something I picked up while studying martial arts, which are perhaps the single most romanticized pastime in the US. Writing, like martial arts, is work. And if you don’t do the work, counting on mystical forces and autonomous characters to do it for you, you’re going to end up with a crappy end result.

I am not talking about organic modification of characters or plot lines as you make decisions. Sometimes I can end up with a story running into areas I didn’t envision when I first outlined it. Sometimes I make decisions about my characters that make your original plan for them feel forced, or not make sense at all. I may choose to move in this newly recognized direction, or I may choose to go back and change my character to make them fit the original idea. Either way, the operative word there is I. Every bit of that hypothetical situation rides on the back of my decisions.

Those decisions aren’t always conscious. Sometimes they regress back to something that was decided off-the-cuff without a thought to how it might become important later. Sometimes they are truly subconscious. My mind will worry at a character concept in the background the same way it does a story idea.

Mystifying the mundane leads to lazy thinking. It can even lead to complete fallacies becoming canonical and being handed down between generations of practitioners. To return to my martial arts analogy, taijiquan has been notorious for this. “Taiji practitioners are 100% relaxed.” (No, they’d fall down if that were true.) “Taiji makes no use of external (muscular) strength.” Tell that to Chen Xiaowang when he’s in a horse stance with his thighs parallel to the ground. One of my training partners who was largely a rational man used to claim that he wasn’t using his muscles when he did the form. He would “prove” this by pointing out some muscle group he wasn’t using. He didn’t take it well when you poked him in a fully engaged, well developed muscle six inches away.

Writing is the same way. At the end of the day, there’s no net. No recourse. I wrote it. I made the decisions that led my story where it is. I can hide my head in the sand and blame the muse, or failing inspiration, or “characters taking over the story.” Or I can own my part in it, examine what I’ve got to learn why it came out that way, and figure out how to make it better.

I know which one I’d rather do.

(This post was inspired by some awesome discussions we had in the #shutupandwrite chatroom on Freenode IRC. It also inspired a post in the /r/shutupandwrite subreddit with which the chat is affiliated. You should come check it out. Some  of the best no-nonsense, results oriented writing advice and support I’ve run into.)

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3 Responses to “My Characters are Not in Control”

  1. Jefferson Smith Says:

    I understand you point, and I agree, in principle, but I still refer to my characters as though they are influencing my decisions as a writer. Why? I COULD tell people that there’s a mode of thought I enter while I’m writing, in which a particular set of attitudes and sensitivities associated with one or another of my characters are given priority, and that it is while I’m in that mode, under those guiding influences that I make many of my best decisions about the novel’s progress. Telling them that my protagonist made the decision for me is a simpler shorthand for the same thing.

    • Eric H. Says:

      I get that, and I do realize there’s some overlap there. People use the shorthand but understand they’re responsible. I’m talking about people who don’t seem to get it.

      Like Laurell K. Hamilton:

      My characters are real to me in a way that makes me miss them. For God’s sake, I’ll be in the mall and see something, and go, “Oh, it’s the perfect gift for (fill in the blank).” I’ve been in line with the present in my hand, before I go, “Wait, these are make believe people. I can’t buy them a Christmas present.”

      • Mris Says:

        See, I go the other way from this. I never forget that my characters are imaginary. But that doesn’t mean I can’t buy them a Christmas present. I’ve taken several things out of the library because they were the movies my characters would watch or the books my characters would read, and it was useful to have specific reference points. Carter, for example, turns to the movies when a bunch of magic stuff happens in his life and he’s trying to get his bearings about the Sidhe and magic–so I had to rewatch Labyrinth and Darby O’Gill and the Little People, because that was as close as he was going to get. For other characters it would have been looking through a particular book of myths that they might have found when they were looking for resources, or checking to see what comes up highly if you Google something…I haven’t actually bought anybody a Christmas present of that sort, because As You Know Eric-Bob, we have a pretty damn good library in this county. But I wouldn’t rule it out.


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