Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Backseat Drivers: Why your characters know the story better than you - by Chris Joynson

There comes a point in every writer’s life when their characters are so well defined in their own minds that the characters take on a life of their own. You can hold conversations with them as naturally as you would a real person, and even though you think you know inside and out, they will continue to surprise, show unseen depths and sides as you continue to write them. They are your friends, your children, your babies. And just like real people, they fight back.

You may assume that just because you created their world, breathed life into them, and designed their appearances and characteristics, that you somehow have a say in how they act. This is your show and you are its master surely? (Throws head back in hysterical laughter). No, not in the least. You see once the characters come to life they will act as they see fit, and that won’t always mesh with what you want them to do.

You see the problem is when you first come up with a story the characters aren’t much more than a few scribbles of notes that move through the plot like chess pieces, but the more you write the characters, the more you learn about them and get the sense of their voice, the more they change. In the end the characters you’re writing will be vastly different to those cardboard cut-outs you initially came up with.

This means that inevitably you will come to a part of your story where the characters refuse to do as they are told, because what you want them to do no longer fits their character. Now there are two ways around this, either you break the character and force them do what you want, or you have to backtrack, reconfigure the setup so that the character’s actions fit with the character, or maybe even take a different route entirely. Now while the latter options may sound like a pain, they are far more preferable than the first. If you see the character as a real person, then so will your readers, and if you break the characters they have come to love they will hunt you down and, well they’ll probably just voice angry complaints, but you don’t want to upset your readers that much.

Look, I know your story is your baby, and its perfect the way it is and nothing could ever make it better, but you have to be open to change. Your characters develop as you write them, and the story has to follow them. Who knows what new ideas might come to you down the line, what flash of inspiration or suggestion from a friend, and that’s long before the editor comes knocking at your door with their array of sharpened pens designed specifically to carve up your book. You have to get used to the idea of change, and accept that the story you end up with won’t be exactly the same as that original synopsis you had in your head.

It’s a scary thought, but its ok, because your story will be better for it. The world is not a static place, and your story will continue to grow as you write it, you’ll learn more about your characters, and even how you write will improve. So when you find that your characters aren’t doing as they’re told, perhaps you should sit down and have a talk with them to find out what the problem is. Your story can only get better.


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