Monday, May 17, 2010

Do Your Characters Take Over?

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?


Unknown said...

I was unplugged last week and missed Sherrie's post. Thanks for the link.

When it comes to dialogue, my characters tend to take the rein. They're always suprising me with what they have to say, but I'm definitely not complaining. Although I let them have their say, and let them direct the story to how they see fit, they still have to keep within the frame of the story set out in my outline. Fortunately for all of us, I'm pretty flexible.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Great post! I did a post on this over at The Lit Lab and did a small rant on how it's not your characters, but yourself, that's doing all the taking over. However you look at it, it's something that's definitely fixable and controllable. I think many times once we get to a certain point in the story, we see other doors open, and we're tempted to see what's behind them. Sometimes it works out in our favor, sometimes not. :)

My post is here if you're interested. Thanks for your viewpoint! Twilight: by Bella Swan

Tabitha said...

Stina - that's a great way of working. I'm a firm believer that you can't really know your characters until that first draft is written and they've had a chance to 'show' you who they are. So flexibility is a must. :)

Glam - I just read your post, and it's great!! You're so right that it's us doing the work, not our characters. I can sometimes get so caught up in pretending to be my characters that I will lose sight of the story. That's when I know I need to walk away and come back when I'm a bit more objective. :)

Rebecca Hamilton said...

love your approach :) Excellent! I think people think differently. or some, they write their character. Others, their characters speak to them. The writers of characters don't like to believe there are some of us who actually have characters speaking to us, demanding to take the reigns. But it happens. Those of us who know "get it".

I am more of a write by the seat of my pants kind. After my characters have told me what the story is about, I can then refine the story. But try to have a story up front? Only the barest of outlines will allow such a thing.

When I wrote my first book I have ONE thing in my mind that would happen. I wrote the book. It doesn't happen. And it's better because I didn't let it happen. Now it happens in book 2 and book 1 kicks more ass because I let one of my characters take over.

Yes, I'm a pushover, I know. I jut follow my characters around like a lost puppy.

Marcia said...

So I let my characters go nuts until they've collapsed on the ground, twitching from overstimulated indulgence.


For me, too, the outline (such as it is) springs from the first draft. First draft is where the possibilities are explored.

Sherrie Petersen said...

I love hearing about your process, Tabitha! It's so amazing that there's no one right way to do this. I keep learning as I go and it helps hearing how other people approach it as well.

Tabitha said...

PaintWithWords - I love how everyone does things differently. It just illustrates how unique we all are. :)

Marcia - exactly. :)

Sherrie - I'm still learning. :) It's one of the things I love most about writing, because it means there's an unending treasure trove of things to discover. :)

Natalie Aguirre said...

I have a general idea of where the story is going when I start so it defines the scenes. Sometimes my characters move in different directions when I see my plot moving too slow and I try to think of ways to up the stakes. Or when I see a character acting too much like others already out there and I want to twist the person's character/back story. That sometimes leads to surprising changes with other characters.

Anonymous said...

hi, i'm new to blogging (a couple of weeks) and im really just starting to give myself to writing. Im amazed constantly by the support network on blogs and i am so glad to have found all these amazing people (present company included) to spur me on, validate my fears and desires- its wonderful.

i have to say i love the first creative flow of pen to paper. always have, there is something ancient about it. its real.

i put my first draft down on paper and can see what you mean about it being the basis for an outline. yes thats mostly what ive found mine useful for lol.

second draft coming along, slowly but surely.

thanks for your post and links- ive found my next feed of surprising inspiration :)

Vijaya said...

My first draft is an exploratory draft -- and it really allows me to explore the possibilities. So it is a huge MESS, especially the middle portions. I've never successfully finished a novel to my satisfaction, so I don't know what will work best for me.

But here's what I've learned from my three novels -- that I often have to get out of my own way. I tend to be a plotter, but my characters know what is true for them. When I force a plot upon my characters (because I like the twise or whatever) it must be true to their character. So that's always a struggle. My best writing comes when I don't overthink.

PJ Hoover said...

It still happens to me, though not as much. I do try to plan out more beforehand, but maybe because I get so happy when they do take over, I let them more often.