Several of my posts this week have been inspired by Victoria Grefer’s Writing for You. But there’s one thing she discusses that I really don’t like, and that I hear authors doing all the time.
She talks about the characters taking over.
My character made me write it
A lot of writers talk about the points at which the character takes over. When they want to go one way but the character won’t fit with that direction. When the character takes the story in a direction they didn’t expect. When they feel like the character has gained a life of its own and taken over. For many, the character then becomes the one directing the story.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand and sympathise with this outlook. Characters are absolutely central to story, and sometimes that comes into conflict with the plot you had intended. Sometimes you realise that the way the character’s heading and the way you wanted to take the story don’t match, so you change course. That direction didn’t seem to come from your ideas, so it must have been the character taking over, right?
So very wrong.
Mystifying vs empowering
Lets face the uncomfortable truth. There are ideas in our heads that we aren’t aware of. There are emotions and instincts that take over and try to warn you when you’re heading in the wrong direction. That’s called the subconscious.
Sure, it’s uncomfortable to think that we’re not in control of what’s going on in our brains. So we mystify it, we externalise it, in the case of writing we talk about the characters having lives of their own.
But they don’t. Everything about them comes from you, from your ideas, your passions, your emotions. The person telling you that your plot and your character aren’t consistent isn’t the character, it’s you. That uncomfortable niggle when something doesn’t fit doesn’t come from your character or your muse, it comes from you, from the skills and awareness you don’t even recognise that you have. Your brain is capable of far more than you realise. Accept it. Revel in it!
Sure, the metaphor of the character taking over is a useful one, but it still muddies the waters, stops us carrying this through to its logical conclusion. It makes the character seem like something whole and complete, beyond you to change.
Facing the conflict
If your subconscious is telling you that the character and the plot don’t match then you don’t just have two options – write your plot or listen to your character. Once you acknowledge that the character, that little nagging voice, is just as much you as any other thought, then you have three options – the bad option, the standard option and the other option.
Bad option: Ignore it, let the character behave inconsistently for the sake of plot. Terrible idea, it’ll annoy readers and make a worse story. This is why people usually take the second option.
Standard option: Change the plot to fit the character. Keep things consistent through different events. This is usually the right option. It keeps the character, the driving force behind your story, consistent.
Other option: Change the character to make the story work. This is lots of hard work, as it means going through the rest of the story and altering the way the character thinks, talks and behaves, but if you really want that plot twist then it is an option. It might even lead to a better character.
Facing the cold, hard truth
Openly acknowledging that the character is part of you, and just as open to change as anything else in your story, is an uncomfortable but an empowering thing. There’s a useful part in the ‘my character says…’ approach, and that’s acknowledging the voice of your subconscious. But lets go further. Lets recognise that voice for what it is, own the insight it brings us, make it our own. It’s more honest, it gives us more options, and it can lead to better storytelling.
Taking responsibility for what your character ‘says’ also means empowering yourself as a writer. How can that possibly be a bad thing?
Photo by Matthew Wynn via Flickr creative commons