But it’s what my character would do…

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!

Wait, that came from me?
Wait, that came from me?


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.

Again, wrong.

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

Trusting your readers, trusting yourself

In fiction, as in human relations, trusting others  is one of the most important things you can do. And I don’t just mean that moment when the character makes a leap of faith and counts on his friends (cue stirring music). I mean writers trusting readers.

Trusting readers

‘it’s a respect thing, and my readers deserve that respect’ – Victoria Grefer, Writing For You

Good fiction writing is usually subtle. It hints at what’s going on, rather than hammering the reader over the head with exposition. It lets the reader feel smart as they work out what’s going on between the lines.

Doing this requires the writer to trust their readers, to assume that they are smart enough to work it out. That’s not as easy to do as you might think. After all, you want to be sure that they get the message, and sometimes the push to achieve certainty means you forget that trust. You over explain, you exposit, you repeat yourself. You might not mean to, but you’re refusing to trust your reader.

To quote Victoria Grefer again, ‘you walk a fine line as an author, because if you’re too vague, you’ll confuse your readers… if you’re always stating the obvious, you’ll frustrate and insult your readers’. But having the restraint not to over-explain can often be harder than giving enough explanation.


Trusting yourself

Why is this so hard to do?

I’d say that it’s mostly because we find it hard to trust ourselves. We doubt that we’ve given enough information, so we shove more in. We think a hint might be too subtle for ourselves as a reader, so we assume that others need help. We don’t have enough faith in our smarts to rely on those of others.

It can be a hard things to do, but if you have a bit more faith in yourself as a writer then you can also place more trust in your readers. If you find that you’re often over-expository then, when in doubt, trust in the hints that you’ve dropped. If they create confusion you can always add more cues in later.

Beyond fiction

Like many writing lessons this is valuable in the wider world. Many of the times when I’m most patronising and least willing to rely on others come from a lack of faith in my own abilities. I’m not sure I’d get something right, even though I probably would, so I ‘help’ too much – and by help I mean explain the blindingly obvious or take over.

It’s a huge problem in business, a subject on which I do a lot of reading and writing. Those higher up seldom trust in the people below them, and that’s crippling to morale and the flexibility of an organisation. But how much does that come from not trusting that they’ve got it right themselves, that they’ve put the right structures in place to let the business work?

Trust in your readers. Trust in the people around you. But start out by trusting in yourself. It’s a whole lot more satisfying, and a a whole lot more productive.


Picture by w00kie via Flickr creative commons

Why we love an underdog

Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? From Frodo facing terrible evil and fearsome foes, through to John McClane taking on a tower block full of heavily armed criminals, we love to see the little guy stand up to someone stronger. But why is this so appealing?

Half man, half tower block, all action.
Half man, half tower block, all action.

There are plenty of reasons of course, but one I hadn’t considered was mentioned by Victoria Grefer in Writing For You, and that’s the nature of the conflict. For an underdog, the outcome of the conflict is terribly uncertain. It’s hard for them to win, and our desire for them to succeed creates a tension that keeps us reading.

But I’d go further. I think that what really makes an underdog compelling is that every action implies both internal and external conflict. They can never relax because the enemy could beat them at any moment. Every move becomes a battle of will, pushing their body, their mind, their courage farther than ever before, because that’s the only way they can possibly succeed. Even if we’re not very aware of it, there’s an implicit internal conflict in the background of every externalised action set-piece, as the character grapples with their own weaknesses, forcing themselves to continue when it would be easier to just give up.

Thus, the character’s external tensions, their internal tensions and the reader or viewer’s tension are all neatly tied together. Doing that makes a story more powerful, and an underdog is a good way to make the connections.

Any other views on this? Why do you folks root for underdogs? And which are your favourite ones? Leave a comment, let me know.