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28 March 2011 @ 06:00 am
When your Characters Talk Back to You by Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban  


When I wrote both my first fantasy, TWO MOON PRINCESS, and its sequel, THE KING IN THE STONE, my protagonist Andrea, for all her willfulness, dutifully followed my plot. Maybe it was beginner's luck. Maybe it was that, having modeled her after my son who never did what he was told, I had resigned myself to the inevitable and, erroneously assuming I was the one leading, I'd followed her lead.

Wherever the reason, I started my third book feeling confident that, unlike in my life, in my writing I was the one in charge. So, when, half way through the first draft of my new project, THE REVENGE OF THE WOLF KING, Richard, the young squire who had all the ladies swooning over him, told me to stop throwing girls at him because he was gay, before storming away to break havoc in chapter ten, I was in shock.

Yet, upon rereading the story, I realized that, only if I accepted him to be so, did his actions make sense, and I, humbly, thanked him for sharing such a personal detail with me.

Judging by the comments I got from my fellow inkers, I am glad to see I am not the only writer who has had the eerie experience of having a character stand up and refuse to do as told.

For Ellen Boorarem this happened while she was drafting THE UNNAMEABLES. "Medford's hide-bound, prosaic, slightly neurotic friend Prudy," Ellen said, "was about to meet the Goatman, a frighteningly weird satyr-type creature. My plan was that Prudy would completely freak out, but about two lines before the meeting Prudy communicated to me that she was just fine with this, thank you, and what kind of a wimp did I think she was? This gave me a whole new sense of Prudy's character, and increased the impact a short time later when she DID freak out about something."

For Keely Parrack, it happened when, on the first rewrite of a sci-fi/thriller/romance she is working on, a minor character demanded "to barge in on a major scene, and it really was like he just decided and I'd better follow him while he proved he was no bit player. I felt like showing him the outline where he doesn't exit but I know he wouldn't care!"

Angela Frazier had to do a major rewrite also while writing THE ETERNAL SEA, the sequel to EVERLASTING. "I'd briefly introduced Camille's fiancé, Randall in the first book," Angie said, "but his character wasn't really explored. He was going to be a bigger character in the second book, and I had all these plans to show what a pompous jerk he was. But the more I wrote, and the more scenes Camille had with Randall, I saw their chemistry really develop and ignite. Boy was I surprised! It was as if her character and how she reacted to him turned me against my initial plans to write a character for people to hate."

To Elizabeth C. Bunce "This actually happens to me with alarming frequency, but one of the most memorable was at the beginning of StarCrossed, where the main character stumbled into a party of people who were *supposed* to be EXTRAS. Walk-ons. There and then gone again. I already had a cast in place for this book! They were waiting in the mountains. But instead, the novel was hijacked by a boatload of promiscuous, drunken teenagers who turned the course of the novel completely on its head. The biggest surprise came when Meri, the youngest, shyest, and most mild-mannered of these hijackers, just shoved her original counterpart right out of the book and made it plain that no, she was the young woman my main character would come to befriend. And what a character she turned out to be! She had so much to say (and do) it's impossible to imagine the novel without her."

Sometimes it is not the characters but the plot that defies the writer.

"I was writing The Runaway Princess," Kathryn Coombs said, "and the princess, Meg, was supposedly sequestered in a tower, only she had snuck out with her friends' help. She had just gotten her hands on an invisibility potion, and she was planning to put it on the tell-tale rope that hung down from the tower window so it wouldn't give her away when a guard who wasn't a co-conspirator came on duty. As she poured the potion on the end of the rope, it flashed into my mind that it would be really funny if the entire tower disappeared, which, far from helping Meg out, would alert everyone in the nearby palace that something was going on. I just went with it, and Meg adapted, too, mostly by running madly toward the forest and trying to figure out what to do next. I suppose I would say the story spoke to me that time! It really didn't feel like MY idea, but I loved it."

It also happened to Jennifer Nielsen. "For THE FALSE PRINCE (not releasing until next year), I had outlined a course for the plot for the protagonist, Sage. But he seemed to insist on defying the master of the house. Internally, I really battled with whether to write the scene the way Sage wanted it to happen, because I knew the consequences for him were going to be awful. Yet once that idea presented itself, I knew I could never go back to the original plan. And yeah, the consequences are awful, and perfect at the same time. Nothing else would've been right."

So if one day you realize you're channeling your characters and not creating them, do not freak out, just remember, as Ellen Boorarem puts it, that "the characters know best." And if, on the other hand, your story comes to a halting point and you don't know where to go from there, listen to your characters. As Jennifer Nielsen reminds us, one definition of writer's block is "a writer trying to force a character to do what he or she doesn't want to do."

wanderingdreamr: kobatowanderingdreamr on March 27th, 2011 09:15 pm (UTC)
I can't say I've ever had that problem in the very little writing I've done. Sure I changed the gender of one character and then hey, it turns out these two are lesbians, awesome! and had another character tell me that no I got her name wrong and I changed it (fine by me, have a hard enough time thinking of them in the first place) but I just don't seem to have that problem. Maybe it's because I think of the story in terms of plot/actions instead of characters performing the actions (ie, I only create/choose characters who will do it in the first place)?
Mirth & Matter: The Journal of Elizabeth Bunceelizabethcbunce on March 28th, 2011 03:57 pm (UTC)
Hee. Just. You. Wait. >:D
wanderingdreamr: kobatowanderingdreamr on March 28th, 2011 06:07 pm (UTC)
Well, considering I come up with plots first and then find characters who fit the situation, not characters first then situations, I think I'm safe for a bit longer. XD
Samantha BoyetteSamanthaBoyette on March 28th, 2011 12:33 pm (UTC)
Oh yes
Without a doubt this happens to me. The character I am writing now just kept developing issues, she became a little OCD, a little anorexic, and a little bit of a cutter. All this in another realm evil queen. Plot and characters not doing what you expect is part of the fun of writing!
Girl FridayGirl___Friday on March 28th, 2011 01:59 pm (UTC)
Totally fascinating post, thanks! This happened to me in small ways in my last novel, but I think it'll start to happen more frequently as I grow as a writer.
nandinibnandinib on March 28th, 2011 04:23 pm (UTC)
So. Interesting. I for one am glad Mari gave the other girl the boot, since she's one of my favorite characters in Starcrossed. Let me see ... in my YA historical there was this puppy that followed one of the characters home, and whatever I did, he refused to leave. So the darn mutt's in there to the bitter end, and I can't imagine the story without him.
ex_marissam on March 28th, 2011 04:48 pm (UTC)
Oh gosh, the examples are endless! The worst for me is when my characters decide they don't want to DO anything and just stand around talking for pages on end.

I just want to shake them and be like DO SOMETHING INTERESTING.
A Deserving Porcupine: rebeccarockinlibrarian on March 28th, 2011 09:43 pm (UTC)
Oh good! That is exactly my problem. I was reading along wondering if I even had any examples, because my characters just tended to stand around having meaningless conversations rather than making the plot go forward, so I'm glad that isn't a sign of being hopeless as a writer.
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on March 28th, 2011 04:54 pm (UTC)
Fantastic!! I wanted so badly to add my two cents, but I realized quickly that so many Inkies (and probably writers in general) have had this experience. At one point I was sure my major turning point was coming too soon, but I had to keep writing. I'm a pantser and I thought I'd just fix it all in revisions. But what happened? My MC did something I never expected him to, no matter how hard I tempted him otherwise. It made perfect sense though, and it solved all the problems neatly. Amazing.
ebooraem on March 28th, 2011 04:56 pm (UTC)
Love the puppy situation, Nandini! I have a real-life dog just like that. :-D

I always love it when this happens, because it ALWAYS ends up solving a plot problem...sometimes one I didn't even know I had. It also gives me the willies, though... what exactly is going ON in this writing process, anyway. I've learned not to talk about this in workshops with kids...tends to make them move their chairs back from you a little, and snicker at each other.
(Deleted comment)
natalieag on March 28th, 2011 06:58 pm (UTC)
I haven't had that experience yet, but I'm not as experienced as you all. At least I won't panic if it happens. Thanks.
jen_wrote_this on March 31st, 2011 05:35 am (UTC)
Excellent Post
What I love about this is seeing everyone's thoughts together. There's a constant debate as to whether an author should control and direct their characters, or whether the author should create characters strong enough to direct themselves. Probably the best route is somewhere in the middle. But I love that this post acknowledges that there is a tugging process between authors and their characters.

Great job, Carmen!
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on March 31st, 2011 12:16 pm (UTC)

Thank you to all of you that left comments.

In my opinion you have to listen to your characters and then edit. That goes for their long conversations too. Let them talk, then cut.

Above all, have fun.