Writing advice, Writing and Editing

The Runaway Character

As I have mentioned before, I have been meandering through a book entitled The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack Bickham. Sometimes I like to refresh my memory about certain points and occasionally I will learn something I hadn’t thought of before or haven’t considered in the manner the author suggests. I heartily recommend reading any such book you can find.

I’ve read most of Mr. Bickham’s book with interest and curiosity. Then I arrived at a passage in Chapter 25, “Don’t Wander Around in a Fog…”

“…the problem beginning writers sometimes have when they speak of how ‘My characters just took over the story and went their own way.’

“…did you ever stop to think how strange such a statement is? How can your characters take over your story or anything else? They are not real. You made them up. They exist only in your head. And you are the author. You are the one in charge!

“Part of your job as a writer is to control, discipline, and channel your imagination—not passively let it freewheel like a runaway truck…

“…Characters taking over, new ‘inspirations’ coming out of left field, and all the other good stuff amateurs imagine is a part of writing are all results of imperfect technique, laziness, poor planning, or lack of understanding of basic writing principles.”

Though I agree with much of the advice Mr. Bickham gives throughout the book and have the utmost respect for him, on this issue I must disagree.

Yes, the characters in our fiction are not real people. Yes, we authors made each and every one of them up. They are products of our imagination. Mr. Bickham is absolutely correct, but, if I’m reading him right, he seems to think fictional characters are puppets we manipulate to fit the necessities of our plot.

I think it is much more complicated than that.

Much of what makes good fiction work is the realistic depiction of character. No, they are not real people; they are the author’s realistic illusion of real people. Like real people, they are dynamic, act and react to their world based on their understanding of that world and what they want from life. And like real people, any part of that formula can change at any time. It can often change without much warning.

Part of the process of writing fiction, particularly longer works, but short stories too, is getting to know our characters. As we depict them in various situations and facing various challenges, our knowledge of their character grows. Sometimes, this knowledge of our characters means our original plan for the story needs to change. It can be a minor issue, or it could be a major plot point, but something in the nature of the character we’ve created has made our original plot outline no longer valid.

Forcing our characters into doing our something just because our plot demands it, risks turning them into cardboard cut-outs, what the critics call two dimensional characters.

In the novel I just finished, for example, I have two of the main characters, a man and woman, eating dinner in a scene toward the end of the story. The climax is behind them, the male character’s romance with his girlfriend is on life support and the woman is romantically interested in the man. I worked the conversation in that scene over and over, trying to find a way for her to tell the man that should he and his girlfriend not work things out, she was available, but couldn’t do it. I couldn’t have her just blurt it out. Her character just wasn’t that blunt; it would have been out of character. And the flow of the conversation never went in a direction that allowed her to work it in. Much as I tried–and I tried–I couldn’t bring it into the scene without it obviously reading like the author wanting to tie up a loose end.

So I left her interest as veiled hints and hope the reader picks up on them.

According to Mr. Bickham, they were my characters, my story, I should have made her state her availability.

Suppose you a writing a romance story. A lovely nurse trying to win the love of the hot young doctor. The story progresses with the usual ups and downs, but you feel it needs more conflict, so you introduce a new nurse as a rival. You raise the stakes for your heroine. Now the rival turns out to be a devious, back-stabbing witch. A real bad guy. But your heroine is no pushover, she begins to fight back. Your original, fairly pedestrian story of a nurse trying to win the man of her dreams, now becomes a different story, one that concentrates more on the battle between the two nurses, than on the love story.

Your characters can reveal what might actually be a better story than the one you initially set out to write.

Again, Mr. Bickham seems to call this amateur, lazy writing. His opinion is that you should work all this out before you begin to write, in an outline of sorts, then be disciplined enough to stick to the outline. Anything else is letting your imagination run wild.

I say let your imagine run wild. There are millions of possible directions a story can move, let your imagination examine them all, then decide which one feels right for you and the story you’re telling. There is no better way to surprise and delight the reader than by surprising and delighting yourself as you write.

My advice is to write in whatever manner feels comfortable to you. Use an outline if that helps keep you from wandering off on some tangent, but the outline should be a guide only. It might be the quickest path between the beginning and your envisioned end, but it isn’t necessarily the only path, or the most interesting one.

Perhaps, as your story unfolds and you grow to know your characters, you’ll find that the destination you had in mind isn’t even the right one for this story.

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3 thoughts on “The Runaway Character

  1. Michelle Mueller says:

    I agree with your stance 100%. Being a perfectionist and somewhat controlling of my own work, I dislike surprises. Especially the kind that occur in my own head. In my current WIP, I have a character that has essentially shut down. She’s out of reach. She is lost. And just as she has shut them out, she too has shut me out. Though I know things about her that the other characters don’t, I could no more bend her to my will and discipline her than I could hold the moon. This annoys me, endlessly. But it makes the search for her all the more authentic from the PoV of my other main characters. I have found through practice that sometimes it’s best to let the characters make their own way. Usually they know better than I do.

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    • Thank you. I recently had a conversation with a young (17) friend who complained about authors killing off her favorite characters and why the author would do that. My reply is that sometimes we kill them because that’s the last thing the reader would expect, but sometimes it’s just where the story goes. She seemed surprised. “You talk like the story has its own life and you’re just following.” I nodded. “Sometimes that’s the way it works. The story goes where the story goes. I’m just writing it down.”

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      • Michelle Mueller says:

        Ah, that is a good example! We are merely the tools of the story, sometimes. At least that’s how it feels. I’ve had that happen: get to the end and realize the character has to die. Not my wishes, necessarily, but because the story requires it. I guess many people who read but don’t write probably don’t realize much of what happens in a story isn’t necessarily what we as the writers had originally intended.

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