I'm Just Saying…

May 21, 2010

You’re Not The Boss of Me – When Characters Take Over

About six months ago I started thinking about my next book, Deciphering Bella. I was just getting to know Bella. I knew she was a young woman with a difficult past and her past was going to intrude on her present: physically, emotionally, and mentally. Whenever I pictured her, she came across as docile; she said little, and took action even less. She was a passive character. As for her husband Mark, in my mind, I had him all worked out. He was going to be stalwart, stoic, and dependable throughout the story.

And then something happened.

That “something” happened a few weeks after I was discussing the book with my mother, my faithful reader, my sounding board, my truth-teller. In short, she is the one person who will tell me if I have written a piece of crap. She listened with careful attention while I explained my concern that the story was not developing. When I finished she asked, “Have your characters started talking yet?”

That statement alone leaves most non-writers scratching their heads, saying “Hunh?” It’s difficult to verbalize the process of a story coming into being. Express the idea of a fictional character having “something to say” and your listener may either be fascinated or give you a nervous smile and take a few steps away from you.

Here’s the truth of the matter: as writers we have characters running around in our fertile imaginations. They have thoughts, feelings, their own lives, their own stories to tell. I have often heard it said, “The author may want one thing, but characters do what they want, they make their own decisions.” Much has been written about the process of character development, and characters becoming larger than life.

In his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, the wonderful teacher Robert McKee proposed the idea of  a story “writing itself” was in itself, fiction. The phenomenon was nothing more than a writer coming to know his/her characters and world in depth, as they should.  

Sometimes characters take on a life of their own, to the dismay of the author. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the inimitable Sherlock Holmes, was also a writer of historical fiction. It has been said Doyle despaired over Holmes eating away at his time, preventing him from completing more important works. Finally, fed up with the genius detective, Doyle resolved to be rid of Holmes once and for all, killing him off in “The Final Solution.” Doyle may have been ready to live without Sherlock Holmes but readers were not; their outrage forced him to bring Holmes back.  

So what happened those weeks ago? In searching for my story, I began to question why Isabella, a young woman with such a troubled background of mistreatment and abuse, would be so docile. Wouldn’t there be a shred of anger suppressed in her personality? My imagination jump started: scene ideas began to form, dialogue started to flow. Sometimes it wasn’t pretty.  And Mark the dutiful husband? It became clear Mark was not going to behave as I had decided. Bella and Mark’s relationship took on a new depth, and conflict began to grow.

At that moment, I felt as if my characters had just thumbed their noses at me and said, “You’re not the boss of me.”

They are so right.

McKee may very well turn out to be right, but for now, it doesn’t feel that way. I will continue to ask questions, letting my imagination wander and following wherever it leads.

Until next time,



1 Comment »

  1. I don’t know that the characters take over but they definitely start throwing their weight around and nudging the story in different ways. It is really important to listen to them as well, because if they are telling you something it is usually because you know that something you’ve written isn’t right in the first place.
    Thanks for sharing such an interesting post.

    Comment by Cassandra Jade — May 21, 2010 @ 5:55 am | Reply

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