When Characters Go Their Own Way

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image1989736What’s this? Me, the arch-planner, admitting that my characters sometimes have a will of their own? I’ve always dismissed that idea as nonsense. Characters come from the mind of the writer, where else? The writer invents them, so they dance to her tune. She can make them do and think and say what she wants all the way through the story. Right?

I’ll get back to that soon. For now, let me fill you in on the current state of my work in progress. I’m writing the last part of a novel with the working title Caller, part three of the Shadowfell series of historical fantasy books intended for a YA/adult crossover readership. The deadline is getting uncomfortably close.

I’m one of those writers who plan things out in some detail before they start a new book. I prepare outlines and synopses and chapter plans.  When I’m ready to start, I don’t do a quick and dirty first draft, I write a few chapters at a time, then edit them before I move on. That means the initial writing is quite slow, but there’s not a lot of re-drafting needed later. That method suits me and has done for fifteen years as a full-time professional. Other approaches work well for other writers.

Many will think my method sounds rigid. But it has room for flexibility. I’ve never changed the overall architecture of a novel in the middle of building it, but I make changes when I find a better way to do something, a more effective way of moving the story along or creating tension or providing a window into motivation or character. I tend to make changes to the way I’m writing the story, not to the story itself. I know where the characters are coming from and where they’re headed, not just physically but on an emotional and psychological level. My characters may spring surprises on the reader, but not on me.

So here I am, getting to the pointy end of this manuscript with my characters in increasing peril from external sources and at the same time beset by internal conflict (there’s a strong thread in the Shadowfell books about conscience and responsibility – can lies, deception and violence be justified if they’re the only way to achieve a greater good?) I know already that my two protagonists can’t come out of the story without significant psychological damage. And now one of those protagonists has started making choices I didn’t plan for him. Awful choices. Crazy, unwise choices. What’s going on?

I find while I’m writing the last part of a book, the part where I ratchet up the tension and present my characters with impossible choices, I sleep fitfully, dream vividly, and think about the story and characters most of the time, often to the detriment of whatever else I’m supposed to be doing. I get a lot of ‘brain churn’, a not-especially-helpful overload of story details bubbling around in my mind. I become quite disturbed when my characters have to face terrifying situations or sink into a mass of dark thoughts. Perhaps that’s because their stories, though fictional and including fantasy elements, are not so different from the situations some people still face in our world, in places where tyrannical regimes use terror as a tool of control. Or perhaps it’s because my protagonists feel like real people to me, and I, the author/God of this creation, have chosen to subject them to hell on earth. Now one of them is challenging me in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Go on, push me. Push me to the edge. See how much more I can take before I jump.

Characters don’t exist independently, of course, however real they may become to us. They are indeed all in our minds. If another writer came to me for advice on the situation outlined above, I’d say keep writing, let the character have his head, finish the novel, then go back and rewrite that section if you’re not happy with it. If a character seems to be pushing or pulling hard, chances are that’s the natural direction for the story to take. If the guy is in your head all the time, urging you on, what you write may well be inspired.

Sadly, my deadline is too close to allow for structural rewrites of any magnitude. I want to get it right the first time. And I don’t want this character to push the whole thing out of kilter; Caller winds up the Shadowfell series, for now at least, and the ending can only be as planned. What will I do? Accommodate my character’s apparent death wish as best I can. Adjust the building blocks a bit; stretch things further than originally intended. Keep on writing. Trust my protagonist and trust myself. And accept that there’s a rough ride ahead.

Of course, one could take a more spiritual approach to the question of whether characters can exist independently of their writers’ minds. We could get into a discussion of inspiration, story-telling genes and ancestral memory. But I’ll save that for another time!

Do your characters ever head off in wayward directions? Do you haul them back or let them go?

Photo credit: © Ian Judd | Dreamstime.com


About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


  1. says

    Sounds like raising children to me, Juliet. You may have a plan and are diligent in trying to mold the child to your preconceived notion but it just may not work out as intended. To a greater or lesser degree, your real or fictional child has the spark of free will in there that could be a game changer. You want her to be a doctor? Don’t be surprised if she ends up a (gasp) writer or editor. The horror.

  2. says

    “Go on, push me. Push me to the edge. See how much more I can take before I jump.”

    Wow. This feels so real to me. It makes sense that the closer anyone gets to the edge, the less predictable–the more chaotic–their behavior might become. It’s a psychological twist to survival of the fittest. Yes, this feels truly authentic.

    Two more things. Love this, agree 100%: “If a character seems to be pushing or pulling hard, chances are that’s the natural direction for the story to take.”

    And what you’ve said at the end taps into that thing we just can’t explain. How it is these made-up people have such fully actualized selves that we may not (consciously) understand? Why is it so hard (at least for me) to trust that whatever it is they’re creating through us makes sense–or will make sense down the road. It’s a subject I’d love to discuss sometime, but it’s so difficult to explain.

    Good luck finishing your wip, Juliet. I’m confident you’ll find the right path.

  3. Hilary says

    Hmmmmm. People often say that characters “take over” and then they get all mystical about it.

    I think what happens when characters seem to take on a life of their own is actually that you have invented enough about them that the rest of their personality, and even their future and past lives, become inevitable. It’s like a sudoku puzzle – when there are enough “clues” in the grid, there is only one way that the rest of the numbers can be placed.

    If you have a character who can now only behave in a way that isn’t what you planned, chances are that somewhere along the line you have invented for him some characteristic(s) that are incompatible with your planned outcome, and the solution to your writing problem is not to change the plot but to work out what it is that you invented that is the origin of that death-wish, and change that detail in your chaacterisation. That way you’ll be back in charge.

    The interesting point that I’d like to come over mystical about is, that the character’s back-story becomes inevitable when you’ve invented enough about their present – in what other area of life does causality work backwards in time?!

    • says

      I like this suduko analogy. But there are times when characters are hard to understanding even at the very start of a story. One of the main characters in a now-finished story insisted from the start that she wanted to work at a funeral home. Why? Nothing I could imagine clicked, but I couldn’t bring myself to drop the characteristic either. It wasn’t until the end of the draft when the character arrived at the funeral home and began her job when I understood what that had been about. That’s the stuff that gets to me. It makes sense “underground,” but it can be excruciating to trust it.

    • Jeriann Fisher says

      I agree. Each time I’ve given in to a character who wants to take the story somewhere outside my very carefully outlined story, I’ve regretted it. I find what it is that made the character want to behave that way & fixed THAT. And then I change the plot point back to my outline. I don’t think it’s mystical or psychological mambo-jumbo.

      I’m an outliner and a character profiler. I anticipate — or try to — every possible action & reaction. I try not to let a character get out of my control. When they do it’s time for a deep breath, a careful examination, and sometimes a battle to restore authority.

    • says

      Some good points, Hilary. As for going back and changing some characteristic that has led my protagonist to this point, this is book 3 of a series in which he has been a major character throughout, so there’s not much can be changed about him; the reader knows him pretty well by this point. I’m sure he and I will reach a compromise of some kind!

      • Hilary says

        Ah, I see the problem …. Sorry, I missed the fact that it was a series.

        But I just wonder – the third book you’ve written about the same character, all his personality was defined in the earlier books, there’s no real scope to invent anything new about him ….

        Just a thought … Is that perhaps a little boring for you? Is it really you who wishes him dead, so you can start again with someone new, and go back to the fun bit of inventing characters?

        Could your compromise be – you’ll let him live if he allows himself to be a minor character in future? Or he can survive but with a life-changing disabling injury, giving you scope for further character development…??? No, I should write my own stories, not try to muscle in on yours….

        The reason I’m interested in this is, I recently found myself in conflict with the 1st-person narrator in my WIP – she’s writing the story of her life to justify her position after an argument with her boyfriend, but the story I want to tell is not the story she sits down to write – I have to make her go off into lots of digressions to meet my objectives instead of/as well as hers. I never meant it to get that convoluted and it’s taking a lot of thought to untangle it all. Fortunately I’ve made her the sort of person with a grasshopper mind who does digress a lot.

        I’m used to the idea that invented characters become the gremlin inside the author’s head, not letting the author alone until their story is written, but the author as the gremlin inside the character’s head … no, all too mystical …

        • says

          I guess I didn’t express that very clearly. I didn’t mean the character was set in stone and had nowhere to go, but that his future development needed to happen in the context of the significant emotional baggage / psychological damage he has from the past. Over the three book series I hope I’ve allowed all the major characters scope to develop and change.

          In this particular case, I’ve let my character walk down his dark path, but given him a lifeline he can use if he chooses to. I can’t go into any further detail without risking spoilers – I’m working on Book 3, but my readers have not yet seen Book 2 in this series. I hope none of the characters are boring!

  4. says

    Hi Juliet!

    I think it would depend on my characters themselves. I write in multiple genres from picture books to young adult. With my picture books I typically control very tightly the actions of my characters to make sure the storyline remains simple. With my middle grade boys adventure story I allowed the three characters a little room to head off in different directions as long as it followed the general story line. With my young adult mystery and my young adult fantasy (both are about half way completed) I allow my characters to guide ME on their journey and we have discussion about where their stories will take us.

    Fortunately for me, most of those conversations stay in my head…otherwise the men in the white coats might come knocking at my door one day…;~)

    Lovely post!

    Donna L Martin

  5. says

    My experience has been similar. I’ve published two novels with ‘body counts,’ and found myself off-kilter and disturbed when I wrote those killing scenes. One – a really really bad guy who has been my favorite character that I’ve ever written about – got under my skin so much I went to church and lit a candle for him. The same as I do for real people I’m worrying about. It helped. Go figure. Even though we’re making up pretend people in make believe worlds, those feelings are the same as we would experience in times of distress in our real lives. I know why I do it (calling Dr. Freud…..lol). But the reason doesn’t matter. I just need to manage those feelings. I am two years into practicing Bikram Yoga and it helps me so much to blow those cobwebs away especially when I’m writing very dark scenes. Thanks for your post. It’s a great topic.

  6. Denise Willson says

    Goodness, Juliet, what a profound post. I want to give you a hug.

    I’m afraid my answer would be a bit of both. I’d spend a day going back over my original notes and thoughts regarding the core characteristics of this character. Who is he, exactly? Although I do beleive a person can change, willingly and not, we are, at the center, a mess of hard-core genes and chemicals.

    After connecting with this core, I’d go back to writing, no matter where the character takes me.

    You can’t expect your character to risk all if you don’t. Now go get’em, Juliet. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  7. says

    This is a very real and unexpected personal situation as I am working through my first draft in a very detailed fashion, in what some would call a first edit, but at the moment is feeling like, at least in parts, a rewrite!

    I am not a detailed planner, and generally I like to allow the story a chance to grow and develop as I move through feeling what is right as I write it. However I usually have a beginning, middle, and an end, and know roughly a bunch of steps in between before I start. I thought I knew my characters well before the off.

    So when I was half way through the first draft and realised that my character just couldn’t have done what I had asked of her in Chapter two, I just had to let her go her own way. I was trying to make her responsible for things that she would never have done, and I pushed her through ten chapters like that, carrying all the guilt with her too, when she could never have done it in the first place. Therefore currently I am reworking the first half of the novel to fit with her ultimate final choices and actions, and it is hard, but the story and characters are all the better for it.

    Sometimes we just have to let our characters breathe, and take a moment to listen to them in order to know what is best.

  8. says

    I too am a planner, an outliner. I can’t imagine just hopping behind the wheel and taking off in some unknown direction without my trusty maps. But my WIP is also my debut novel. The road to my destination has had many unexpected turns, including a major character who declared he wanted to be a hero–or at least a sympathetic character, not a murderer. I changed directions.

    I suspect now that, while I had thoroughly thought out the other characters, he had been more a stereotype, a device. Over the course of revisions, as I have come to know him better, he has put on layers of complexity. (And isn’t this is true of people generally?)

    This my first trip has been a long one but also an interesting journey of discovery. Best wishes to you on yours.

  9. says

    I’ve felt much the same about characters in my own novels. Like another person said above, it’s like raising children. It’s uncanny just how “different” your characters can feel from you, but they come from your own mind! I grow so attached to my characters, too…perhaps this is a way writers show self-love?

  10. says

    I worried that writing suspense would finally force me to work from a story outline. You see, I’m a pantzer. A hopeless pantzer. I try to plot and plan but my characters take over, no matter what.
    My stories always start in my head with characters as well as a situation. By the time I begin writing, I know the characters well. How they dresss, where they live, their favourite expressions… Yeah, we’re pretty tight. Maybe that’s the reason they feel they can hijack my story.
    So far, so good. Even the characters in the suspense seemed to know what they were doing.
    Okay, bring on the guys in the white jackets!

  11. says

    Funny you should mention this. I’d never had a character do anything other than what I planned – until my current wip. In my case a minor character who was only supposed to have a small role before stepping off the stage has decided he wants to stick around for the whole show. So far I’m letting him.

    Good luck with your rebel :)

  12. says

    I’d always kind of pushed off the “my character is doing things I can’t control” as nonsense – until I started to draft my second book. Within the first few chapters my antagonist developed into a totally different person than I had set up at the beginning. I’ve always been a plotter, but for this story I’m seriously thinking about just letting the story go and see where the antagonist leads me. He’s quite beguiling. :)

  13. says

    I totally had the ‘brain-churn’ going on last night! What a great way to describe it. I don’t think I fell asleep until after midnight. Perhaps it’s my characters way of getting back at me for making them work so hard during the day. =)

  14. Ronda Roaring says

    I think the reason why there are so many comments on this particular topic is because it’s an important one on which many writers have an opinion. We have, on the one hand, the old-school idea that the writer creates the characters. Then, we have, on the other hand, the current idea held by many, including myself, that the characters are real and that writers are nothing but scribes. (There is, too, another group of writers who don’t know and don’t care, but we won’t go there.)

    Albert Einstein weighed in on this subject a long time ago when he said that “reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” The important thing is that, whatever you believe, you try to be the best writer you can possibly be and to do your characters (real or imaginary) justice.

  15. sue knight says

    sounds like true life, my path is always going off in wayward directions no matter how much of a template I put in place. It must be a strong character to be messing with your brain this way ! Love your words regardless I know it will come up daisies. I am going to read the series once the last one is out.
    mwahs to you

  16. says

    Like you, I have a pretty clear idea of my characters’ journeys before I begin, so changing that dramatically doesn’t work.

    Intrigued by the discussion point of whether characters are alive in some other dimension. I always think the stories exist in whole form on the Other Side, and my job is the bring them over here.

  17. Sarah says

    As someone who doesn’t preplan in any great depth I’m quite used to following my characters so long as they’re heading in the right general direction.

    However, now I’m in the midst of my first series of books I can finally understand the benefit of preplanning, character bios etc. I’m forever going back to check details which takes time… too much time!

    I guess, in your case, it depends on how different a direction the character wants to take the story. If he’ll end up in the same place eventually then how he gets there is less important. If it will fundamentally change what you wanted your story to be about then that’s something else.

    I admit I’d be tempted to let the character lead. There’s obviously something that’s taking them in that direction which may give an entirely amazing twist on what you expected.

    What always fascinates me when I finish and re-read my novels is that there is something deeper in them than I realised when I started out. I also find it amazing when readers pick out things I never realised I’d put there. I think the subconscious is an amazing thing and it’s probably the thing guiding this character to act different to your inital planning.

    Whatever you decide, I’m sure the story will be great :).

  18. says

    The main character of a short story I finished recently–and which finished in the Top-10 of a contest; first four places win money and a publication; my fingers are crossed;–behaved and thought in ways that surprised me. There’s at least a tiny bit of me in all of my major, and in some of my minor, characters, but this guy thought in ways that I don’t. That none of my other characters ever have. This guy came out of nowhere. I don’t usually outline or plan; I sort of just report what my characters do. So I didn’t have a plan for him, exactly. But his thinking patterns and responses surprised me, nonetheless. I let him surprise me, figuring that if the writer is surprised by his own character, then the readers will be, too. But it was still a little disquieting, since it meant, perhaps, that I had zero control over my own creations. This was my first non-genre piece, too, so I didn’t have some of the tropes of a genre to reign him in with, which undoubtedly helped him be a little more free. I let him go, which is important. So now let’s see what happens. As I said, my fingers are crossed. He’s flown from the nest, and I wish him well.

  19. says

    This just happened to me. I’m writing a short story…that’s actually becoming a much longer story. I had a clear plan in my head where the characters were to go…and suddenly they turned left and straight down the rabbit hole. I love it. I adore it. But now I have to piece it back together.

  20. says

    I teach introductory creative writing and have just covered this subject in my last class and know it well. In my first contemporary novel (unpublished) my heroine’s grandmother took me in a direction I hadn’t planned and didn’t want to go. Her story is still waiting to be told. In my first Regency novel (submitted, waiting for a decision) my hero’s sister kept getting in the way until I promised her a book of her own, which is my current WIP. Unexpected as these directions were, they have led to more depth in my main characters and no lack of what comes next. My thoughts are, you ignore a character’s demands at your writing peril.

  21. Jenny Citron says

    I have had characters do that before. It gets so crazy sometimes! They can be hard to control but I think if you really sit down and think about it, allow yourself to be open to change–maybe you hadn’t thought of the best way for the story to go–then it all works out pretty well in the end.

  22. says

    My characters are like my children (and I’ve got plenty of both). I plan, and they laugh and go do their own thing anyway. Somehow, though, we end up close to where I want to go.

    Thanks for the post! Thought provoking.

  23. says

    This post sparked some insightful responses, for which I thank you all. What a community of warm and wise people. Apologies for the lack of comments by me – I have been busy writing the book.

  24. says

    Good luck with the end of the MS. I’ve experienced characters having a mind of their own and as I’m also a planner I found it pretty hard to handle. It’s a great to hear another writer talk about this. I’ve tried to discuss it with my friends and they look at me like I’m mad!