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When Characters Go Their Own Way

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image1989736 [1]What’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 [2] | Dreamstime.com [3]

About Juliet Marillier [4]

Juliet Marillier [5] has written twenty-four 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 is currently working on a historical fantasy trilogy, Warrior Bards, of which the second book, A Dance with Fate, was published in September 2020. She has a collection of short stories, Mother Thorn, coming out in late 2020 from Serenity Press, with illustrations by Kathleen Jennings. When not writing, Juliet looks after Reggie, her elderly rescue dog.