Thursday, May 13, 2010

Twilight: by Bella Swan

I can't tell you how many times I've read posts about "characters taking over a story."

Let's think about this - that's just kind of crazy, isn't it? These people don't really exist. Admit it. They don't. No one is taking over your story but you. Only you're writing it - unless you're working on something with multiple authors.

So let's get one thing straight - you can't sit around blaming your characters for things that go wrong. Stop it right now. YOU are in control, and if your story starts going off on some tangent and you think you have to follow because your characters are leading you there, well, you're just being lazy.

Sherrie Peterson wrote an excellent post the other day titled Who's the Boss? Here's a bit of her experience:

Well, I did plenty of flailing. I wrote this weird, melodramatic, dark crap that I hated. I kept thinking if that's where the characters wanted to go, didn't I, as the author, have an obligation to follow them there?

I've decided that way of thinking is wrong, at least for me, and certainly, for this story. My characters are NOT the boss of me.

When it came right down to it, the problem was lack of confidence. I didn't think I was good enough to write the story the way I wanted it to be written, so I fell back on easier solutions. I gave the characters stupid obstacles to overcome and made it too easy for them, for ME, to find a way out. And it was boring. I hated the story so much I put it to the side and worked on other things.

There you go. Sherrie admits that her problem with the story was lack of confidence - and that can easily stray you into lazy-land when it comes to writing. No matter how you look at it, writing a good novel is hard. I remember writing this particular paragraph in my current WIP, a novella about Cinderella:

Rose appeared from the crowd next. Her cheeks mimicked her name. Her fluttering movements made her emerald green dress swish along the floor, and the sound seemed to travel up the material, all the way to Rose’s throat as she curtseyed and said in an airy, billowing voice, “Your Royal Majesties, I am honored that you have allowed us to speak today.” She stood in front of Lucy and Edith now, her tall frame a dark spindly tree between their bright dresses.

I remember thinking at the time - wow, I love Rose! She speaks clearly to me. Introducing her was easy. But why? It's not because she's a living being taking over my manuscript, that's for sure. I remember feeling tempted to put Rose in more scenes. She's Cinderella's stepmother, and in my story, she's only in one scene. She's a strong character, but that doesn't mean I'm going to drop her all over the place whenever I hit a rut. It's tempting, but no.

Remember that you're in charge of everything. Not critique partners. Not characters. Not all those rules you read about. If you run in a direction that feels like your character is "taking over," understand that, yes, creating a character that comes to life in your mind is fun, but it's still you that created the character, and you have the power to change direction. You certainly don't see Bella Swan's name as the author of Twilight.

Like I said in Sherrie's comment section on her post, I think we reach a higher level as a writer when we see our work not as set in stone or something out of our control, but as something fluid and flexible and something where we can break the walls down and rebuild and rewrite without ruining anything. When we reach that point, we're really writing, not just spitting out stories in our head.


  1. *applause* I totally agree (and have also never understood when other writers say that).

    Although this is about the millionth time I've revised my WIP, there are still parts I find myself thinking "Ugh. This is so weak/awful/boring. But I can't think of anything better." And then I realized—if I hate it, I can (and must!) change it!

  2. This happened to me in the first draft of my first novel. Something happened, and I though "Well, X just happened, so I have to go with it."

    The rarely happens anymore, thanks to a transition from pantsing to scene-based story development. It's very hard for a character to derail the story when there is a coherent outline to follow.

    There is still a slight risk that a character will do something out of character to him/herself, but that will affect the characterization for that individual and not the story-at-large.

  3. Wow, wow, wow!! LOOOVE this post!! So very very wise.

  4. Very well said! (Love the catchy title, too.) I actually love "character-driven" stories like Twilight, but I think having the basic plot laid out--and deleting the ten pages of tangent that just slipped out from your keyboard--is essential to writing a coherent hero's tale.

    I know that plotting has made it easier for me to erase the fun character-driven craziness that sometimes (okay, all the time) distracts me from the main storyline. You're right that characterization is no excuse for a lazy, sloppy plot.

    Thank you for making this a little more concrete for me.

  5. Great post, Michelle! I totally agree too. I'm not sure if laziness is the culprit, but I do think a lot of writers blame their characters for ruining a story. I do experience that feeling of a character taking over, though. It usually happens when I finally start to understand my characters more. They taking over is the result of me knowing that characters wouldn't do certain things, or that I haven't set up the story in such a way that a character would do such a thing. I think if a character starts to take over, it's a matter of revising. And, you'll probably have to go back further than you first imagined to make the revision because now you are setting up a higher standard for yourself.

  6. Yes! I always thought those kind of statements were at least in part due to the idea that true writers -- "artistes," if you will, are slaves to the muse, forgetting reason and bravely going where their passions lead.

    But really, it's your story. These characters are *figments of your imagination.* If it works for you to let them loose, then great. But if it's getting in your way, you always have the nuclear option: redrafting their character sketch.

  7. Beautifully said, Michelle. I love the idea that stories are fluid and flexible. We're not ruining anything when we rewrite. We're the ones taking charge -- not our character -- and making the story even stronger.

  8. I must throw some sand on this path. The author is totally in control. And if he is not,he's being sloppy.

  9. Jordan: I think many of us revise our first few novels more than we will later novels. It's definitely a learning process. But with all of them, yes, we can change whatever we want!

    Rick: I agree that changing from pantsing to planning can make a huge difference in writing. It's not for everyone, but it has certainly made a difference for me. I think every writer, even if they like to fly by the seat of their pants, can learn how to organize and plan their writing in a way that works for them.

    Valerie: Haha, I'm glad you like it!

    Katrina: Plotting does make a huge difference, I agree. I also go off on tangents much of the time, but as I write more and more I start to catch when I'm doing it and I'm able to stop it more quickly and get things back on track.

    Davin: I think laziness is what does it for me, but yes, everyone's different. I actually LIKE it when a character "takes over" because it does mean that I am comfortable with that personality that I've created and I'm more likely to write a believable character. I like your last though there about setting up a higher standard for yourself - that is very true. I think when we reach a higher standard, it's much easier to control our stories, although it does take more discipline.

    Livia: I hate feeling like a slave to my muse. I love my must - she provides me a wealth of creativity. But, like my characters, my muse isn't something that controls me by any means.

    Sherrie: Yep, exactly. When a writer sees how much control they really have, some great things can happen.

    Lakeviewer: Sloppy, yes. That's probably a better word than lazy because sloppy can come about for many different reasons. Glad you agree!

  10. I'm realizing this more and more as I write. The story's mine, and though the characters may surprise me with what they do, the ideas always come from my own head, so really it's just my own imagination surprising me with the directions it's taking my characters.

    I'm in charge of my WIP, baby. It's a great and terrible responsibility, but I'm up for the challenge.

  11. YOU are in control, and if your story starts going off on some tangent and you think you have to follow because your characters are leading you there, well, you're just being lazy.

    Amen and amen.

  12. I am going to have to agree with Davin that typically, when I say "my characters made the story go that way," I mean that I've come to know them well enough that the way I had originally planned the story to go wasn't in character. And a plot won't ring true with the reader if the story action isn't something the character would do. All it means to me is that I've learned my characters.

    Sometimes, it's driven by fallacy or plot holes. I thought the story would go one way, but it turns out that way wouldn't work, so I ask myself what would the character do in this situation? And again, because I've come to understand them, they "tell" me what to do.

    They may be imaginary, but unless you write them that way from the beginning, they still need to seem real.

  13. I'll admit that I'm one of those authors that treats my characters as real people and that I listen to my muse. But I do that because it works for me. I know that my muse is my subconscious and that it has things all worked out more than I'm consciously aware of.

    But I think the reason it works for me is because, like one of the other commenters mentioned, I'm also a plotter. I have every scene's entrance and exit points mapped, and the muse/character-taking-over part is in how they get from point A to point B. They come up with lines that I'd never consciously think of. There have been a few times I worried about them going off on a tangent, but within a few paragraphs I saw how it led back to the exit point, so I let them go at it. :)

    Jami G.

  14. I'm also most likely guilty of letting my character control my previous novel, or better yet, not working hard enough to convey the gist of the story and the characters. I'm working with an outline and plot points now and I've not once thought the characters were taking over anything. It's my story, mine, I tell you. :)

  15. Excellent post, Glam. It's definitely easy to "follow" a character's whim because you think it's best for the story, but in the end it's what YOU want to write.

  16. THANK YOU! I'm getting so weary of writers lamenting about their "characters" or "muses" not cooperating with them. I understand the feeling of not being in total CONSCIOUS control, but anthropomorphizing parts of our own mental world is just a metaphor. It's creepy when writers act like they're REALLY listening to voices or something.

    Come on. Give credit where credit is due.

    I find that when I have trouble writing a character doing or saying something I had planned, it means I hadn't though it through well enough, and there is some problem to work out. Maybe I need to amend either the character or the plot. But it's ME doing everything, the good and the stupid.

    It's only a matter of conscious vs. subconscious workings of the mind--and they are not independent of each other. We need to listen to our intuition, but we can also feed our intuition by putting in the work. There are no talking angels or devils on my shoulders.

    Writing is a lonely business, I know, but instead of inventing imaginary friends, let's appreciate how good our brains are at telling us when an old idea isn't going to work or when there is a better direction we could take our stories.

  17. Davin put it nicely. "Characters taking over" is a sign that the characters are more fleshed out, and the writer has set a higher standard.

    Laziness isn't the culprit, but once it happens, it is lazy to sit around arguing with imaginary friends instead of going back to revise!

  18. Simon: Yes, exactly. See, you get it, and that's a great thing for anyone writing their first novel. I never would have understood this concept 3 years ago. I would have stomped my foot and insisted that Eric, my antagonist, was the main reason for the story and he drove it all. Whatever.

    Loren: Amen, yep!

    Jami: Oh, you explain this so well! That's how I am, too. I rely on my "muse" to get me from point A to point B - and it's a good thing I know what point A and point B are in the first place! I know my subconscious can get carried away, but that's why it's nice to keep it in check and be able to yell stop! when I need to.

    Crimey: You tell them that! That's great that you have planned more this time around. It's highly underrated, I'm telling you.

    Mariah: Yes, it's definitely easy to let things just go their "natural" way, but you know, I still get haircuts every now and then. I wouldn't want my hair down to the floor, thanks. If that makes sense. :)

    Genie: Thank you for a great comment! Yes, you explain it so well - it's subconscious and conscious and they have to work together. I also think that doing the research and putting in the thought and time on a story is what helps your subconscious come up with solid characters that DO get carried away because you know them well enough and can let them steer for awhile (just not for too long).

    Balance is key, and I think we do need to give credit where it's due, absolutely.

  19. This is an interesting topic, because we do need to believe in our characters as real people if we want to make them real to our readers. I always feel compelled to love my characters, truly and unconditionally no matter their flaws, in order to write them as real people. On the other hand, they aren't people at all. They are no more real than anything else in the book (less real, likely), and are in fact just elements of my narrative that I'm using to illustrate a larger point or points, and they are in that sense no more in control of the writing than are my settings and scene details and plot points. All of those are just parts of a big machine and if my characters and my story goals don't match up, I am just as likely to change the character as I am the plot point, because both character and plot serve the story, which trumps everything else. As someone has already said, characters are just ideas, and we're the ones having the ideas. But at some level, yes, we do have to pretend they're real people while understanding that they are not, and that we are making a story up, not watching what happens with other people's lives.

    If I'm writing a scene and the characters aren't doing what I think they need to do, then I do not have characters taking over my story; I have an incomplete understanding of my own story and I need to figure out what I don't know about my story. Sometimes I can only find that out by bulling through and writing the scene wrong; other times I can only find that out by backing off and thinking about stuff.

  20. Scott: I like how you point out that story trumps everything, which is always true. It's important to believe in our characters and understand them, but I don't think it's ever necessary to let them trample the story. That has happened to me many times, and it's quite a mess to clean up.

    Like you, when I run into a spot where the characters have "taken over," it's always because I'm clueless of certain things in my story and I've got to sit down and figure things out.

  21. I guess characters can derail a story, but at least one of my "me's" is objecting.

    I agree with Glam that when a story derails it's most often because I don't know what happens next. But I don't see this as the characters taking over.

    I see these incidents less of the story derailing or characters taking over and more as exploration. But I delete lot of text. If I write 60,000 words you can bet I trashed another 20,000. Just this week I deleted 5,500 words from my book.

    I looked at book number four. I'm only to chapter six, but you know I wrote those chapters nearly a year ago. There's a lot more right with it from the get go than book number three.

    So I guess this can be true for some writers, but I also think that making mistakes can teach (train?) your writer mind (which for me is very subconscious) how to do it's thing. For me as well, control equates to disaster- both in writing and playing the cello.

    Completely unrelated- It's midnight and I'm looking out 13th floor balcony, watching the streetlights sparkle like florescent diamonds. The taxis come and go and all is quiet except for a lone engine droning from below. It's probably the elevator, but I imagine it belongs to a taxi devouring robot. This probably means I'm disturbed... or something.

  22. Great way to put this. Sherrie's right. We are the ones who right the story. I like the way you put the Twilight by Bella Swan. When you say it like that, it shows how preposterous it is to think in those terms.

  23. Usually, when I say my characters made a decision, I mean my gut did it or the stream of consciousness while I was writing. I tend to follow these paths and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

    But even if you follow a character down the rabbit hole, that doesn't mean you have to stay there. Have an exit strategy: a.k.a. revisions. I followed my MC under a bridge to meet 6 very nice people. We hung out there fore 1.75 drafts. Then we went back on course, because things were better that way.

    I'm in charge. My characters' views will be noted, and, often as not, ignored.

    Great post. Mind if I link back to it on my blog?

  24. Jennifer: Thanks!

    Zuccini: I think that's a lot of what it is: exploration. If a writer doesn't have things very planned/outlined, that exploration can really get out of hand. But some just write that way, and that's fine because, as you say, it can help you grow.

    Do you think that has something to do with being on the 13th balcony?

    Lois: Yeah. I don't think most writers who say this really think it's their characters actually taking over, but I do believe thinking in those terms can really slow the process down.

    Dominique: Go right ahead! I like how you put that about hanging out for 1.75 drafts, hehehe. It sounds like you do have things in control, and you're not afraid to take detours every now and then to see if things can work another way. That's great!


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