A Life of Their Own

“This thing happens where the characters take over and you almost want to look behind you to see who’s writing your story.” -Joseph Wambaugh

It is one thing when, as a writer, you create a character so realistic and believable that they seem to come alive on the page. It is another thing altogether when the character that you have created takes on a life of their own, sometimes taking over the narrative all together until it feels as if you are dictating the story as it is told to you instead of writing an original piece. Worst of all is when a character becomes unruly, digs in its heels, and refuses to follow the plot line in any way shape or form and even finds ways to undermine your well-planned story.

Not all writers experience the process of characters becoming autonomous, but enough do that it is common to hear writers refer to characters who seem to take over the story line by either refusing to do what the author directs them to, or by taking actions other than those dictated by the author. There are also a good many authors who report that they can actually hear the voices of the characters they have created in their heads, some authors even claiming that they find themselves entering into dialogue with them.

Indeed, while there are some writers who claim that you can’t truly have a successful story unless your characters actually do become autonomous, there are others who claim that the entire idea of a character taking over the story is nothing but hogwash and an indication of a lazy mind on the part of the writer. 

But if you find that your characters do talk to you and that they sometimes seem to take over the story line, don’t be alarmed. Even some very famous writers have reported that their characters seemed very much alive. Take Alice Walker for example.

When Alice Walker was writing The Color Purple, she stated that not only did her characters seemingly choose their own actions, but sometimes they would visit her and even comment on her own life, and not always in a very complimentary or welcome manner.

There are some psychologists who say that the feeling of characters choosing their own actions, of characters taking over the plot line of a story is just a product of the writer’s imagination. They say that these characters have become so detailed in the writer’s brain that the mind is writing their story automatically, without conscious choice from the writer. Further, they suggest that when a writer runs into roadblocks thrown up by a particular character, it is really the writer’s subconscious indicating that it is the writer that is not yet ready to deal with this particular issue. Even if this is the case it doesn’t change the fact that the experience of having your characters write themselves can be disconcerting. Indeed, having them become unruly and destructive of the plot line can be downright frustrating.

Whether you believe that character autonomy is all in the writer’s head or that the characters actually do take on a life of their own, there are ways to deal with the ones who get out of hand.

Ways to Manage Unruly Characters

Dialogue With Them. One of the best ways to dialogue with your characters (both primary and secondary) is to have a sit down with your them as they are developed. Write out their back story, then imagine yourself sitting down with them over lates at a coffee shop or wherever you feel most comfortable with them. Tell them the story that you have in mind, why you want things to develop the way that you have planned and what your purpose for writing this story is. Most importantly, make sure they understand that even though unpleasant things may happen to them in the story, when it is over it is just that, a story, and that they will be free to go on and create their own story after you have written out the one you have planned.

Dialogue can also be done as the story progresses, especially if you find yourself with a character who is resisting your lead or who keeps finding ways to throw a wrench into your plot. Again, sit down with them, ask them why they are doing this, what they wish would happen instead, what it is that they want out of this story. Most importantly, listen to the answers that they give! You never know when something they have to say, some way that they would prefer things to be done just might end up being better than the original story line.

Bargain With Them. If a character is being particularly difficult, and if they will speak to you, then don’t be surprised if you find yourself bargaining with them. “Sure, I will find a way to write about this particular bit of your back story if you will work with me by sticking to the plot line.” Perhaps you find that they don’t want to marry or become romantically involved with a specific character you had in mind. If so, ask yourself if that relationship is necessary to the plot line. Perhaps the characters can be involved as business partners or as friends instead of romantic interests. Does the lead character’s dog/child/relative/friend really have to die, or can it just be badly injured or have a close call?

The most important part of bargaining is to listen to what the character has to say about the situation. What do they want? Why are they digging in their heels over this particular scene or sub-plot? What are they afraid of?

While you may not get everything you wanted to in the bargaining process, it can certainly make writing your story much smoother when direction-resistant characters are involved.

Ask Other Characters for Input. If your unruly character will not listen or speak to you, try sitting down with one of the other characters, preferably one who interacts in the story with your problem child on a regular basis. As them for input. Why do they think that the character is refusing to go with the story flow? What to they think that particular character wants out of the story or thinks that they will get by changing the narrative? Is there any way to give them what they want without ruining the plot line?

Write Them Out. Like a troublesome actor in a soap opera, there is always the option of writing your character out of the story plot. The most permanent way of doing this is, of course, by killing them off, but less permanent solutions can involve sending them off to a foreign country or setting them sort of quest that will take them out of your direct plot line. Then there are the old standbys of having them get married off, or choosing a line of work or a lifestyle that will take them out of the story’s telling range.

Keep in mind, however, that short of killing them off, the particularly troublesome souls will find a way to re-enter the story, usually when you least expect it. Sometimes even the dead ones find a way back. In fact, your best bet in managing a particularly unruly character is to be diplomatic and reserve writing the character out of your story as a last resort.

Try it Their Way. Finally, unless you are particularly attached to a specific story line, plot or ending, why not try it the character’s way? Even if you are attached, there is always the option of writing a second version of the story from the new point of view, then comparing it with my own original plot line. In doing this I have had some fascinating plot developments, some even better than I could have come up with myself.

At the End of the Day

At the end of the day, remember that you are the writer. You are the one who has control over the delete and save key. If worse comes to worst, don’t hesitate to close out of your story and work on something else. Even the unruliest character can be ignored, if need be, and even the most favored of stories can be left in computer storage as long as it takes for the character(s) in question to cool off and open themselves up to sticking with your plot or at least open up to talking to you about it.

Keep in mind that if the psychologists are right and autonomous characters are really products of our subconscious issues, then it might be you, the writer, who is not ready to walk down this particular road yet. Be patient with your characters; with yourself. Chances are that one day you will open that particular story back up and find that you are once more in the flow and that the story comes effortlessly.

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