Do Characters Think for Themselves?

If you read interviews with authors, this comes up sooner or later. A writer will talk about how there is often a point when the characters start saying and doing things that surprise him, things he didn’t intend or anticipate. One can get the impression that writers are people who spend a lot of time in a trance listening to the voices in their heads. Voices that are frighteningly independent. But a writer isn’t exactly a shaman, right? He knows he’s just making these people up out of scraps of imagination. They aren’t really going to do anything he doesn’t want them to, right? Or are writers half crazy?

Of course writers are half crazy—we hope to one day feed our families by telling beautiful and terrrible lies about folks who don’t exist. In our underwear.

I, for one, happen to think that on a good day the line between writer and shaman, between craft and trance, gets blured. But to bring a book into the world you have to write on a lot of days that aren’t so enchanted. A few weeks ago I finished the first draft of my second novel, and here’s what I noticed happening with regard to characters going off the reservation.

I don’t outline, but I do write up a short forecast for each section of a book. Just enough of a map to give me confidence that there are some landmarks on the horizon I’m aiming for.  But then, in the actual writing, I find that, like a weather forecast or a Mapquest printout, things on the ground are different.

I may be planning that a character is going to learn something three chapters from now that will cause her to take a certain action, but in the scene I’m writing today, she figures it out sooner because she’s just smarter than that. If I want to be true to what I know about her, if I want her character to be credible, I can’t go holding her back for the sake of a plot device, and I just have to let things develop differently.

This tends to happen most often when I’m writing dialogue. If there’s one thing that shouldn’t be contrived to serve the plot, it’s dialogue. Dialogue has to serve the characters, and it’s best when the writer is kind of overhearing it, like a spy with a steno pad eavesdropping on two people, each with their own agenda. [Plot is a side effect of characters at odds doing things that make sense to them] If the characters are having honest reactions, they won’t sound like they’re reading a script. And those reactions will sometimes surprise the writer, taking events in a different direction.

The ending of a book is also a fertile place for twists that can surprise the writer. I’ve heard some authors say that while they might not know exactly how they’re going to get to the ending, they do know the ending in advance. I can’t relate. For me, story telling is part problem solving, and I don’t know the sum of the equation until I’ve puzled it out. Every little decision I commit to over the course of a novel narrows the range of possible endings in an organic way. I may know of an event that I hope will fit like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, but when I get there and all of the elements are in play, and everything I ‘ve learned about the characters has taken on an irresistible momentum, I just might have to toss that piece and find one that fits true without having to jam it in and fray the edges.

How about you other scribes? Do your characters think for themselves?




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