Thursday, August 10, 2006

Writer Tip #11 -- When Characters Won't Obey

You all know what I’m talking about. You’ve got the scene mapped out in your head. Clara is going to announce that she’s marrying Clem, and Prissy faints. You lead up to the crucial moment, and bam! Prissy stands up out of her chair and says, “Over my dead body, young lady! Now march yourself on up to your room and don’t come down until I say so! And furthermore, don’t call me Prissy anymore. I’m changing my name to Alexis.”

Or perhaps, Trixie is hiding behind Blake’s broad shoulder as he shoots at the bad guys. She’s scared and whimpering. A bullet hits Blake and he falls to the ground. Trixie stares at him, transfixed. Now the evil villains are going to capture her. They walk up to her and suddenly, she grabs Blake’s gun. “Not today, you’re not,” she says, filling the evildoers full of lead before they can touch her. She turns and climbs up the ladder of a nearby fire escape, leaps onto the roof and dashes into the night, where she will find a properly illuminated phone booth and call the police.

What do you do when a character won’t behave? We’ve all had them, those errant persons who insist on doing things their own way. We can’t ground them; we can’t send them to their rooms. So what do we do?

Well, we’ve got a couple of choices.

1. We can force Prissy to faint. We can take her by the arms and throw her down on the floor and make her stay there, probably with a foot in the small of her back so she can’t jump up and start yelling.

2. Or, we can leave her alone and see what she has to say.

I personally prefer option #2.

Most of the time, when a character leaps up and takes on a life of his own, we should let him and see where he takes us. Often, the character has a better idea for the story than we do. By giving the characters their head, we are allowing them to express themselves in a way that’s real and genuine. If we make them conform to our wishes, we often squish the life right out of the story and it becomes stiff and boring.

When I was writing Strength to Endure, I had it in my head that Anneliese would be a very naïve, docile girl, believing everything that was told her. That’s certainly not how she came out. Every time I tried to tame her, she would come up with a question or a retort or some other show of strength that I had not designed for her. Eventually I gave in and let her have her own way. I did keep her naivety, but I allowed her freedom in every other respect, and she’s a much better character because of it.

In my current Work In Progress (WIP) I gave my female character two choices of husband. I had it in my head that she would end up with #2, but she fought me tooth and nail. Every scene I wrote where she chose guy #2 was flat and unreal. Finally I relented and let her choose #1. She immediately perked up. I warned her that life would be hard with #1, but she refused to be dissuaded. She knows it’s going to be difficult, but she’s not afraid. I sighed and let her have at it.

In summary, if your characters won’t do what they’re told, sit back and listen to what they have to say. You’re probably trying to force them to do something that will kill the story. Let them guide the plot for a little while and see what happens. You’ll most likely end up with a much better book as a result.


Framed said...

I will probably never write a book, but I am sure enjoying learning about the process from you. Do you teach classes on writing?

Keith Fisher said...

I really like the way you have illustrated the point. I can relate to having charcters wit a mind of their own. they even wake me up at night. (Of course you relize that when we talk about this phenom, it appears that we are out of mind?)

Tristi Pinkston said...

I am out of my mind, Keith! :)

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