Captain Of The Story Ship

So do your characters always do what they’re told?

I’ve read many an account of characters getting away from their author, and quite a few people sneering at the very idea because honestly, you’re the author, keep the little bastards under control.

… have I written about this before? God, I have no idea, there are too many entries to read over all of them every day to remember what I’ve already written, and I know I’ve ranted on the subject before but have I done it here?

I don’t know. I’m going to say not. If I have, please point and laugh discreetly.

Anyway, I’ve had characters ‘get away’ before, doing things I hadn’t planned. I actually plan for that, since I tend to write better when I give the narrative its head and see what happens. And I have been criticized for that, because clearly my characters are just made up in my head and they can’t do things on their own because that’s silly. To which I say… well, yes and no.

Yes, technically, my characters are generated by my brain, and have no outside existence and no free will. In theory.

But the brain is a magnificently complicated organ, with several layers of processing going on that have nothing to do with my conscious thoughts. The more fully realized a character is in my head, the better I know them, the more likely I am to suddenly lose the ability to force them to do something that isn’t appropriate to their internal logic.

Seriously, imagine someone you know well, say a family member. Now make that person, in your head, do something wildly out of character, like axe-murdering babies or giving money to Greenpeace. (I’m not judging, I’m just saying, different people have different absurdity-thresholds) It’s hard to do, right? You generally don’t imagine your mother laughing maniacally as she tears live kittens apart with her teeth, because it’s not something she would do. Your brain knows that this is an unrealistic simulation and doesn’t fire up the old adrenal glands because seriously, Consciousness, that is a completely unrealistic fear what are you even trying to pull here.

When you know your characters well enough to understand their internal logic, to get them as people, it’s hard to force them to behave out of character, because deep down you know better. And when they start doing something you weren’t expecting – well, for me, it usually turns out that while my conscious mind hadn’t taken into account this or that minor thing, some lower level of my brain had, and was factoring it into their characterization. Internal consistency is incredibly important in a believable character, and forcing them to behave irrationally in service to the plot doesn’t do anyone any favours. And just as you can often predict the reactions of people you know without thinking it through consciously, you can start doing it with well established characters, too.

So my characters do things I wasn’t expecting sometimes, and it’s often only on the reread that I realize oh, hey, that actually makes perfect sense because she’s actually quite defensive and wouldn’t even have done that so yeah. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and I do have to beat them back onto the planned path, but not often. As a rule, if a character insists on doing something, in my head at least, it’s because it’s in character for them to do that thing at that time, and my subconscious knows it even if my conscious mind hasn’t thought of it yet.

So if people give you crap for letting your characters get away from you, tell them you’re just very in tune with your subconscious. Or that you feel that maintaining plausible characterization is more important than adhering rigidly to an arbitrary plan. Or just ‘screw you, I write how I write and it’s none of your damn business’.

Because it isn’t. We think how we think, we write how we write, and what’s important is finding the process works for you, not what other people think you should do.

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5 thoughts on “Captain Of The Story Ship

    • That’s happened to me once or twice – I realized that what had started out as a subplot was actually much more interesting and original than the ‘main’ plot had been!

  1. It doesn’t happen for me that often, to be honest I was a little freaked out the first time it did! I had an outline for my main character to follow, a set of events to occur, then he saw something more interesting and went after that. The result was some of my best ever writing, but it knocked the novel’s path into an erratic wander and I’ve been trying to recover without going back to too rigid a plan.

    What’s the solution there? Do I pare out the best scenes from my protagonist’s little holiday and try to graft them back on the path, or do I just keep running with him? The improvisation is exciting but it’s starting to feel a little too random and roaming.

    • I usually go away from it for a bit and then come back and do a full reread, to get a fresher perspective. Sometimes you do need to curb the improvisation, sometimes you can work it back in – it really comes down to which makes for the better story, I think. But you could take a crack at re-planning and seeing if you can make something out of the new direction.

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