I hear a lot about unwieldy characters. The ones who won’t stay in their well-defined roles. Who just won’t behave. I hear it in panicked tones. From my editorial clients whom I mentor and from writers who just contact me for advice.
This occurs more than you think. And when it does, I always reply, “Rejoice!”
Because this is the best thing that can happen to your book.
It sounds crazy, no? I mean, you’ve crafted your story with care. Or thought you did. You knew where the plot was going, knew the folks involved, had your protagonist doing all the things a protagonist is supposed to do. Why, those character-building steps were all in place!
You were sitting fat and happy with the perfect plan for your book.
Then She came into the picture and took over the whole story. Or He. Some minor stinking character who was just there for the part you, the writer, plopped her into the story to play.
Because you’re the author, right? This is your story.
Well . . . not so fast. Whose story is it really? Even when you think you know all the ins and outs, characters don’t do what you tell them to do. They don’t stay in their well-appointed places, all tied up in the end with a pretty white bow.
And if they do, they’re flat as one-sided pieces of cardboard.
While you have to have a sense of who these folks are to begin the book, a sense is all you really get.
And when somebody—be it the protagonist, antagonist, or minor character—races off into the hinterlands, she’s just become someone real and interesting and wow, the places she’ll take you!
Now you’re blazing on all cylinders.
Now, true creativity has just taken over, and you’ll go far deeper into the people and storyline than you could ever have imagined.
This is where the magic comes in 🙂
And yes, that can be a bit scary. Okay, a bit scary like coming face to face in the western desert with a Mohave Green Rattlesnake.
They kill you, by the way.
And that’s your first thought—this horrid person is killing my story.
Yep. At least the story you mapped out with your analytical brain.
But analytics isn’t where the magic of the muse lives. Rather, she lives in the black hole of space, the numinous unknown, the abyss into which you simply must jump if you’re ever going to be a great writer.
You just have to let go of the analytical control, and let the muse take over.
So, what’s an aspiring author to do? Some character-development questions will help get you back on track at this point.
- First off, get to know her. One of the exercises I give my writers is to write a short story about this person, which won’t be included in the book. Go back a ways. A long ways. Write a story from her childhood, or from teenage angst. Or while in college. In a first marriage. Ask her for the seminal moment from her past, which turned her one way or another, and sit with her as you write where she tells you to go.
- Follow her, in the book you’re writing. Just let her fly, and chase her along. Some of the very best writing occurs through this process—once you pry your grasping fingers from around her neck.
- Once you see where she’s taking you, sit back down with that outline (if you do indeed outline), or the story map, or mental plan and find where it needs to be revised. Obviously, the plotline isn’t going in the same manner as you’d planned. Or sometimes even in the same direction!
- Relax. Yep, just relax. It’ll all be okay—I promise. Remember to breathe.
- Finally, pat yourself on the back. When a character takes over, you’ve now become a real writer. You’re one of the chosen. Because your creative muse has grown strong enough (some might say brazen enough) to take charge and push you’re rational mind to the side.
And that’s what being an artist is all about.
So let those people run!
Have you had a character take over your book?