Fellow blogger Sherrie Petersen recently did a fantastic post about characters. She talked about how characters can become so real that they take over your story and go in directions that don’t jive with your plans. It’s an awesome post and you should go read it. Like, now.
Anyway, that got me thinking. I’ve had this happen to me, but it’s never gotten to the point where my characters have undermined my original story plan. It came close a few times in my early novels (the ones that are now in drawers). When they started going off track, I took a step back to see if this was what the story really needed. If it was, then I’d readjust my plan. If it wasn’t, then I’d adjust my characters to get them back on track.
Recently, though, it doesn’t really happen to me anymore. I hadn’t noticed this until I read Sherrie's post, and I wanted to figure out what changed. I think part of it is my writing process, and the rest has to do with me...
My writing process:
First Draft: a hand-written, god-awful mess that no one would be able to decipher except me. This ultimately gets turned into an outline, because that's about all it's good for.
Second Draft: a translation of the outline into story form. Basically, it’s the raw material, or lump of clay, that will be molded into a full-fledged story in subsequent drafts.
Third thru Zillionth Drafts: adding in layers of characterization, subplots, subtext, etc. Just like with a sculpture, it’s the details that make a story so convincing.
In my first draft, I do a lot of brainstorming. I mean, a lot. This is where I give my characters free reign and let them go wherever they want, however they want to get there. I can afford it at this point because I haven’t committed to anything yet (as in, I haven’t written 100 pages that I might end up deleting). So I let my characters go nuts until they've collapsed on the ground, twitching from overstimulated indulgence. :) While they recover, I lay out all the places they went, keep the best and toss the rest, and then I start laying out the story’s timeline. This eventually turns into the outline. It’s a lot of work. Okay, it’s an INSANE amount of work. But, when I’m done, I feel confident that I’ve got the best path possible for my characters. So if they try to go off course later on, I can put them back on track without the slightest blink. :)
But, as I said earlier, this is only part of it. The rest of it is me as a writer, and how I see my stories. I draw many parallels between my stories and my kids. They are both creations that came from me, and I am responsible for them. For my kids, I’m responsible for guiding them toward becoming decent human beings that contribute to society. That means they don’t get to do all the things they want, because not all of it is good for them. I see my stories the same way. The characters may want to go off toward X, but I know they need to go to Y because that’s what’s good for the story. It’s not easy (neither is parenting, btw), but I always find a way to muddle through and find a good balance that will keep the characters true to themselves, as well as to the story.
Nathan Bransford also did a great post on this subject a few months ago, which is definitely worth reading if you haven’t already.
Anyway, that’s how I balance characters with story. How do you balance yours?