Blog,  Useful Tips,  Writing Progress

When Characters Have a Mind of Their Own

I was talking with another writer friend last night, and he was telling me how frustrating it is when characters develop and change as you write them, and they mess up all your nice plans for the story’s direction.

There can be nothing more frustrating, trust me :-), yet I like to look at it as a challenge. You really WANT to listen to your characters, or if you’d rather, your intuition about your characters. It’s so important if you want your story to be genuine, original and true.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, especially to creative types who like to plan ahead! Some of my characters start off one way before, but as the story goes on, they change. This isn’t bad, though; in fact I try to build in some ways for them to grow: it mirrors human experience, and if that element is missing, it can make the difference between a bit of trite fiction and a gripping masterpiece. So if you like to plan, it’s a good idea to make sure that your character grows and develops throughout the story.

And there is a middle ground to all this. It’s YOUR story, so obviously you are entitled to do anything you want, but a bit of give and take is important. The only way I’ve found for both me and the character to be happy (if I’m being a stickler about my plans), is for me to work out the plot AROUND my characters so we both can get what we want, instead of forcing them to conform to what I want. You can also choose to follow the character’s desires implicitly and let the chips fall where they may, but this could lead to crippling conflict šŸ˜‰ The keyword is “could.” Sometimes it works out better than you ever expected. And it’s different for every single author out there, so you need to play around and find your own groove.

Some of you may be wondering, “But how do I listen to my characters? What the heck is that new-agey garble supposed to mean?” It’s hard to explain, really–like all the best experiences of life–but the fact that authors often like to consult their character’s opinions is probably one of the reasons people have written writers off (hee) as crazy hermits who talk to themselves. It’s the most misunderstood part of the whole process, but it’s just raw creativity, in my opinion!

I’ve talked about this many times before with other writer friends, and a few of us even ask our characters questions right out, and wait for an answer. I know it sounds weird and even otherworldly to some people, and some artists have been known to get trapped in the dark madness of their more sinister characters, or even their own minds, but here’s an explanation that made the whole thing a lot less scary. When I pointedly asked a certain character a question one day, I got an answer that completely surprised me. It was so accurate and so telling that I was a little nervous, and talked about it to one of my old acting coaches. She told me that the human mind has all sorts of untapped memories and things that you pick up all throughout your day without noticing (the same arsenal that brings random details into your dreams), so when you are keeping your mind open, and you know the character’s general tendencies and history, your brain helps by providing a plausible answer from this store of information! I am amazed that the brain can actually do something so incredible and intricate! I love being a human, so I can experience this! In case you haven’t noticed, writing is a great way to learn about yourself too.

So, to tap into the wonderful world of the subconscious (without hypnotism! amazing!) when I’m alone in my happy writing place, I like to imagine myself having an actual conversation with the character, like they’re right next to me. You can imagine it in your head, or you can write it down, or record yourself (if you feel daring). This way you can keep track of what you talked about! Pretend to meet your character somewhere for lunch or coffee, or write a letter or a journal entry from their perspective in their voice. For some, it is harder than others to really know your character backwards and forwards, and trust me, I’m in the “some” category, but this still works wonders for me. Just go to that place in your mind where you can see things from different people’s points of view, and try to get in your character’s shoes. Just…if you’re worried about people commenting on you talking to yourself or not paying attention to the world around you, do it somewhere alone. Really.

There are so many things I don’t understand about this process, but it’s fascinating, and if you really hunker down and just listen to your characters, you can get some cool revelations!

But just be careful. If you talk to your characters, they might actually talk back.