I remember once listening to a famous Canadian literary writer (and no, I won’t name names) say adamantly, during a radio interview, that characters were mere creations, and as such, were under the complete control of the writer at all times, with the writer firmly laying out what the character would say and do, and the character falling into line—and so any writer who claimed that their characters took on a life of their own was a liar.
I remember my reaction was a blend of irritation and amusement—irritation being how I always feel whenever anybody in this business gets pretentious and assumes their way of writing is the only real way, and all other ways must be inferior, ignoring the one golden rule of writing: there’s no one “right” way to do it—every writer finds the way that works for them.
And amusement because I thought, “Well, you wouldn’t last a minute in MY writing room!”
One of the best Christmas presents I got this year was from my parents, who gave me a DVD of The Man Who Invented Christmas, which tells the tale of how Charles Dickens came to write his classic A Christmas Carol.
It’s a lovely film, and one I’ll be adding to my annual watch-every-Christmas pile, but my parents chose it mainly because every time Dickens creates a character in his story, that character becomes a three-dimensional person (visible only to him) who takes up space in his writing room, interacts with him and the other characters, argues with him, follows him around when he leaves the house, and permanently inhabits his world.
My characters are stubborn. While I might be their creator, they were born from my subconscious mind and not my conscious will, appearing fully formed upon the page like neighbours on my doorstep, who reveal themselves to me by stages as we grow familiar with each other. They arrive with a backstory and a purpose that I’m often not fully aware of, and sometimes it’s not until they’re in conversation with somebody else midway through the novel that I’ll learn a piece of information that makes something clear to me about their motivation.
All I know is, they are leading ME. And if I try to push them in the wrong direction, they resist.
I’ll give you an example:
Recently, while working on one of the scenes in my novella, I was trying to hurry along one of the characters—Captain Vautour, a former buccaneer well into middle age, a large man, comfortably settled in the parlour of an inn at Portofino, where he’d been about to launch into a story that was pivotal to everything that followed. He’d been doing it in stops and starts, and being very conscious of my deadline and impatient to move on to the next scene, I tried to hurry him along.
He broke the fourth wall. In my mind—because I see my scenes like movies—Vautour turned directly to me, and said “All right, woman! Give me time!”
I thought of telling him that “all right” might not be proper speech for 1733, but he didn’t look in any mood to hear it, so I simply went and made a cup of coffee and came back and tried again, and let him run the scene the way he wanted to run it.
Because he was taking his time, there were moments where he would pause, and I would have to wait, too.
And in one of these moments, suddenly the movie in my mind changed completely, and instead of being in the parlour in Portofino I was on a terrace in Spain, beside the sea, and a flashy sportscar had just pulled up nearby, and Stuart Keith (Graham’s brother, from The Winter Sea, for those of you familiar with the book) was getting out and jogging up the steps, coming to talk to two new characters.
Now, I’m used to having characters from previous books wander into a book that I’m working on, but…
“Hang on,” I said to Stuart. “You’re not in the novella.” I looked around at the scene more closely, taking note of who was there, and where it was, and what that meant, and… “This,” I told him, “isn’t even the next novel. Or the one after that. It’s the novel after the novel after the next novel.”
Whereupon Stuart simply grinned and shrugged and said, “I know. But there was a pause.”
And then he and the other characters started to talk, and I had to open up an entirely new document on my computer and write down what they were saying, and store it away for that future book—because that’s when they wanted to give me that scene.
So no, Famous Canadian Literary Writer, my characters are most definitely NOT under my control, in the way you described.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’d love to hear from my fellow Word Wenches (and any other writers in our group here) whether you lead your characters or they lead you—and remember, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to writing!