- Writer Unboxed - https://writerunboxed.com -

Four Surprising Benefits to Letting Your Characters Take the Reins

alochen [1]Please welcome today’s guest, Andrea Lochen [2], author of two novels: her first, The Repeat Year [3] (Penguin 2013), was praised by Kirkus Reviews as “an engaging, satisfying read that explores friendship, love and who we really are when it truly matters.”  A draft of The Repeat Year won the 2008 Hopwood Novel Award. Andrea’s second novel, Imaginary Things [4], is forthcoming from Astor + Blue in April 2015. Lori Nelson Spielman, bestselling author of The Life List, called it, “a beautiful book, filled with vivid scenes, unforgettable characters, and oodles of heart. With a page-turning plot and an utterly unique concept, Imaginary Things entertains, inspires, and provokes thought—a perfect book club pick.”

[pullquote]I’m completely fascinated and in awe of the highly imaginative process that authors undergo to write novels!  I absolutely love the comparison of fictional characters as “imaginary friends” for adults.[/pullquote]

Andrea earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, where she was a Colby Fellow.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was the Fiction Editor of The Madison Review, a nationally-distributed, student-run literary magazine.  Since 2008, she has taught undergraduate writing at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha and was recently awarded the UW Colleges Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.  Andrea currently lives in Madison with her husband and daughter and is at work on her third novel.

Connect with Andrea on her website [2] and on Facebook [5].

Four Surprising Benefits to Letting Your Characters Take the Reins

When I was doing research for my new novel, Imaginary Things, I read psychologist Marjorie Taylor’s book, Imaginary Companions and the Children who Create Them. I was delighted to come across a chapter devoted entirely to adults and imaginary friends, and I was downright tickled to learn she included writers among the people who cavort regularly with pretend companions: in essence, our characters. Because as complex and painstaking as the process of writing can be—inventing a setting, characters, and a storyline from scratch—how different is it really from that joyful act of make-believe in which children engage? Our version is perhaps a little more sophisticated and systematic, but doesn’t it spring from that same essential desire to use our imaginations to create a fantasy world and well…play?

Marjorie Taylor also brought up another point that resonated with me—that authors sometimes report feeling like their characters are real people with their own independent agendas, often surprising authors with their unexpected declarations and actions. English children’s writer, Enid Blyton, confessed, “Sometimes a character makes a joke, a really funny one, that makes me laugh as I type it on the paper—and I think, ‘Well, I couldn’t have thought of that myself in a hundred years!’ And then I think, ‘Well, who did thiIMAGINARY THINGS.9.28.14nk of it, then?’” Non-writers find this surreal experience difficult to understand: Well, of course you wrote it, they argue. It’s your subconscious mind. You made it happen. But in my opinion, these moments when my characters fully spring to life and take over the reins is one of the most magical and rewarding experiences of writing. Because when it happens, my characters start to truly live and breathe for me, which I hope translates into them living and breathing for my readers.

Authors ranging from Henry James to Alice Walker to Sue Grafton have experienced this phenomenon of being guided by their characters, and I interviewed many others to find out how common this is, and what we can learn from it. For many writers, giving up control over their carefully-outlined novel to their characters can be nerve-wracking. So what benefits can we gain from relinquishing the reins to our fictitious friends occasionally? Here are four takeaways.

1) Adding conflict or complicating the plot

Once in a while, we need a kick in the pants to raise the stakes in our novels. Maybe we fear “hurting” our characters, so sometimes a character’s unexpected bad behavior can give us permission to ramp up the tension. In Yona Zeldis McDonough’s most recent novel, You Were Meant for Me, she recalls wanting to tell her main character, “Oh honey, this is a bad idea—stay away from this guy!” But according to McDonough, “Her failure to listen helped add a deeper and tighter twist to the plot, which ultimately was a good thing. So I like it when the characters assert themselves and go off where they please; they lead me to new places that I might not have gone on my own.”

2) Observing and revealing character flaws

Lori Nelson Spielman, author of The Life List, reported feeling initially “shocked” by her character’s action, but then realized that “it made perfect sense.” She added, “I treasure these moments in writing when we’re no longer creating the story, but simply observing and reporting what we see happening.” Humans are imperfect, flawed beings, and the same should be true for our characters. We need to trust our powers of character development and let the rest unfold naturally.

3) Straying from the plan to allow for a more “organic” world

In John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, he wrote, “We (novelists) know a world is an organism, not a machine. We also know that…a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world.” So maybe we have that nice, tidy story arc all planned out for our novel, but perhaps what we really need is to allow our characters to mess it up a little. This can make our stories feel more realistic, instead of forced, revealing the author’s hand.

4) Giving your creative side permission to play

Sue Grafton said it best: her strongest work happens “when I am able to get out of my own way. The object, as far as I am concerned, is to let what I call my ‘shadow side’ write the book.” Sometimes, as authors, we can be our own worst enemies. We micromanage and over-plot and second guess ourselves. Writing starts to feel more like work, a chore, or a mathematical equation instead of that beautiful, creative act that compelled us to write in the first place. At times like these, maybe the most helpful thing to do is allow your characters (or whatever you’d like to call them—your imaginary friends, your muses, your subconscious mind) to step in and have some fun.

What are some ways you’ve been guided by your imaginary friends? How do you let them take the reins?