How much free will do you allow your characters?
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Recently I watched a video from Jenna Moreci "10 Worst Types of Writers" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GDGhWAfIHM) about the types of writers who most get under her skin.
While I mostly agreed with her, #9 (at the 5m20s mark) was "Writers Who Are Controlled by their Characters".
Her problem was mainly with the writers who say "My characters won't do what I want them" to excuse problems in their writing, or not writing at all.
I probably take a pretty extreme stance here because I don't consider my characters purely imaginary, and have to write them true to themselves even if it forces me to alter the story or even the plot. I feel a well-written character can be as real to a reader as someone they'll only ever see on TV or in a film, for example.
What do you think?
That's not my process, but I don't write the sort of fiction Heinlein did.
I'm a planster. Liquid plan that I allow my characters to evolve with and alter when necessary. If have several times run into conflicts with their preferences/interests, and ALL those instances worked out for the better.
-I made a love interest for my main character, yet she hit it off with his brother instead. Worked out cool as a side-plot.
-I wanted a nice love-making scene in a pool. My female lead was dreaming of one day being able to swim (she's a vampire). Once she got into the pool she chickened out, and ...whoosh, pool scene over. They made love elsewhere, but the pool panic was endearing to her character.
>ljkendall, listen to your heart and your characters. They'll steer you right.
Videos like the one referenced is another good example.
You need to write what works for you. Not what someone else says is the "right" way to write.
I admit that I had stories that I could edit, but wouldn't move forward. Even with adjusting the character to fit my desired plot. But sometimes, the plot has to change with the change in character. Otherwise, you might as well stick with the original character. Those stories moved when I changed my personal views of the character and now they won't shut up.
There is more to the excuse "The characters won't talk to me." It's just shorthand for many other psychological roadblocks built into writers block.
As a reader I can't usually tell which way the writer went (that's a good thing); but when I can, and it's clearly pantser, I get annoyed with the "making it up as they go along" feel. If they don't know where their story is going, why should I care.
And in regard to knowing which kind of method the author used, if the reader is aware of the author's hand, it's usually bad, regardless of method.
Yes, I can tell sometimes if authors plot too heavily. They force issues, manhandle characters etc. Turns me off.
Equally, a pantser meandering and not fully tying things together, or getting off on wordy, unfiltered tangents also turns me off.
Either way. Whatever method you use, try and keep your hand invisible and the characters consistent. :)
For me, there's no way I could bring myself to adjust the character, except for inconsequential ones. Since you qualified your point with "the version of the person you've created on your first attempt", I suspect that's not too far from what you were thinking.
>5 gilroy: Even with adjusting the character to fit my desired plot. But sometimes, the plot has to change with the change in character.
That made me consciously realise I'm okay when something happens that brings a new way of seeing a character, that reveals something deeper about them.
As a pantser, I'm pretty comfortable with changing the plot.
>7 jeffschanz: I agree you can't put writers fully into boxes! As a way of setting up ends of a spectrum I find pantser and plotter very helpful. If a pantser produces something badly plotted, I'd say they hadn't been tough enough in the editing stage. For me the plot is almost of equal importance to the characters. It's the interaction of those two elements that produces magic I think.
Some of you might find this other video interesting, where instead of having a single plot-related dimension (plotter/pantser) the speaker adds a 2nd dimension "methodological/intuitive" (conscious of literary theories and writing or plotting methodologies, or just going by instinct), so authors can try to see where they might fit on a broad plain instead of onto a line:
You can be true to the character (as you prefer) or the story you set out to tell (as I prefer). To make the two things align, you can change either one. There's no sacred cows, it's only a matter of making it believable that this person does that thing.
Fair enough! It would be a horrifyingly boring world if we all agreed on everything.
When I posed the question originally, I expected there'd be some who prefer the plot-first stance (as you do). I found your reply reassuring to be honest.
The higher level points you make, that you need to make character and plot align, and that you must make it believable "that this person does that thing", I agree with you 100%.
I usually say that I'm ambidextrous when it comes to plotting or pantsing. The internal story fabulator doesn't seem to care much if it's making the story up in advance or as I go.
But even though I think I give my characters their heads, at least they frequently do things surprise me, they somehow never mess up my plots.
On the other hand, I usually am pretty stuck with BOTH my characters AND my plot (once I have it). Even books I haven't yet written a single word of, are still very, very resistant to me changing my mind about anything.
I have actually been told that quite a few mystery writers do work that way. :)
I've been wondering if I could/should do this for short stories. Come up with the twist at the end, and then work back to setting up the twist. It isn't my usual way of working, so it might inhibit my subconscious story fabulator a bit... but if I'm trying to write shorter than I usually do, that would be an advantage, wouldn't it?
In a startling coincidence, I had just been contemplating making myself almost exactly that same set up. It wasn't to cure me from writer's block, though. It was because I was contemplating writing something set in a culture where giving buildings flowery names was the norm. I was thinking that I would have the hardest time coming up with that sort of thing all on my own, but maybe if I could create a random flowery name maker...
Do your characters ever get stuck and you have to come up with some clever way to throw them a hint?
>21 smirks4u: "Likewise, I think that any good writer of character development has to be able to almost manifest as multiple personality. I get the vibe that they are an octopus who does not let one hand know what the other seven are doing at any one time."
I love this description!
As a writer, I tend to make life easier on myself, by not having the protagonists keep too many secrets from each other. This way, at least three or four of the arms are working in concert.
But it's also because I really really hate stories where the only thing driving the plot is two otherwise sympathetic characters working at cross-purposes simply because they haven't explained what each is doing to the other. One of my writer friends liked the use the term "stupid plots": plots that only exist because the protagonists are behaving stupidly.
This is one area where I really, really have a hard time giving control to my characters. I hate watching them do anything I know to be unwise.
Basically, I know where the plot needs to go but I don't let the outline control me. If my characters decide they need to do something unexpected, I'll let them and adapt my outline accordingly.
Does this affect the plot itself? Sometimes. But so far in only good ways. If you're surprised by your characters' actions, chances are your reader will be too.
>22 LShelby: "As a writer, I tend to make life easier on myself, by not having the protagonists keep too many secrets from each other. This way, at least three or four of the arms are working in concert."
Yeah, me too LOL. I have a bad memory, so although I love intricate plots, I know I'd get myself intro trouble if I tried to weave something like that. Or, if I did, I'd have to make sure I kept close track of all the details. Probably through a spreadsheet. I'll have to think about that.
OTOH, everyone has secrets, and this should be true with characters too. But those are different, as they are personal and won't affect the plot as a whole. And when/if they do share them with someone, it tends to add a bit of extra dimension to those characters.
My more primordial ooze attempts at writing came up with another procedure. I was angry at myself when my character developments did the pendulum swing between cliché and prosaic. In an effort to break my predictability, I wrote down who the characters really were; then re-wrote them as their embryonic selves making random knee jerk actions. I would build in head fakes of lunacy, because not all people are made the same. It became a Machiavellian effort to make the relatively good guys and girls a little bad; and vice versa. I make a garbage can oatmeal cookie, (salsa, chili...) . I basically dump everything in my fridge into a blender and find a way to make it work. I try to put a little shredded carrot, currants, pitted dates, etc. into the characters to tease them from their (my) two-dimensionality.
Have a great day!
I think it's gotten to the point where long-running serials with multiple writers have someone whose job is specifically checking continuity for that sort of issue.
I remember Patricia C. Wrede saying that the first however many ideas people come up with, tend to be cliched. So it makes sense to me that when the character surprises the author with something, it's usually a good surprise.
The protagonist of my fantasy epic surprises me fairly often, although always in ways that don't seem to mess up the plot. I usually think its because he is the protagonist, but not the viewpoint character, and so I don't spend as much time inside his head as I normally would for a protagonist.
But maybe it's also because his story is longer, and so he has more chances to come up with less cliched ideas?
>24 smirks4u: "In an effort to break my predictability, I wrote down who the characters really were; then re-wrote them as their embryonic selves making random knee jerk actions."
This sounds fascinating, but I'm not sure I know how to have my characters make "random actions". Does this involve another jar full of slips of paper?
I am sometimes a bit worried that my good guys are too good and my villians too... superficial?, not because I've been getting complaints (I'm more likely to get complaints that my main characters are too competent), but just because it seems like something I would have problems with, based on my personality.
I do know that at the very least, the characters behave differently, because I have this game that I play in my head sometimes, where I take a situation from one of my stories, and I shove a character from a different story into a nearly-identical (inasmuch as the setting allows) situation, and see what they do differently. But I still think the choices they make are good ones. (I tend to believe that there are almost always multiple equally good choices to be made.) So that particular game doesn't help me stop worrying.
Maybe I need to come up with a new game. "Under what circumstances would character x do bad thing y" or something like that?
Oh spreadsheets are amazing. I use them for tons of things.
As far as writing goes, you can do glossaries, outlining, character cheat sheets and all sorts of other cool stuff ;)
And I also use one to keep track of my writing every day (number of words, time spent, etc.) which is great for motivation AND for keeping stats on your progress.
Oh, yes! I even sometimes paint my characters into a corner, honestly, just to see how they react. But, it's the character that is writing the story from their perspective. To me, this is the best part of writing ... challenging my characters.
My sister is one of those obsessive readers. She has an excellent memory for detail, and she notices slip-ups.
I don't use spreadsheets, I have my own custom built database. :)
Great story about your uncle!
One of my characters has a "super-power" that is biologically powered and sensitive, so in addition to being disrupted by certain circumstances, it also just randomly stops working. I never dare have it fail when it would be plot significant, because it seems like to me like the reader would feel like I'm cheating. So it just causes her small annoyances, and is mostly there for flavor.
So I know that not everyone can be at the top of their game all the time, but I find it hard to write it. It's not that none of my protagonists ever act at a level below their best, but that in general they tend to be a very competent sensible lot... except for...
Oh, my! I just had a realization.
I say that I'm ambidextrous in the plotting vs. pantsing department, and usually that's true. But I have one heroine whose stories I have never been able to plan out in advance.
I think I may have just figured out why. She isn't sensible. I can't figure out what she'll do in advance, because almost everything she does is spur-of-the-moment, and "it seemed like a good idea at the time" and to make things even harder on me, she really doesn't care if she dies. So from my pov, everything she does is "not wise". So I have to be right there, in the moment, and fully inside of her head in order to figure out what she's going to do.
I guess you could say that everything she does "surprises" me. (I mean, I'm never actually surprised, but that's because I never had any expectations of her in the first place.)
And, now that I think about it, most of the other surprises my characters have given me are similar in nature. They say, "I am now going to do something that isn't as sensible as you'd like" and I say "must you?" and they say, "Yes, I must, because I am me, and that is what I would do." The reason it never derails the story I'm expecting, is because ultimately those characters are too determined to succeed at what they are trying to do to allow their own weaknesses to overcome them.
I feel like I do the same thing you describe doing, but that I look at it from the opposite direction.
I create the world, the situation and the antagonists in order to insure that there is plenty of opposition, and from there on in, everything I'm seeing myself as doing is done to help the protagonists overcome that challenge. Under normal circumstances they don't actually seem to need much help. But every once in a while, I need to hand them a clue, or throw them a rope. :)
But, I was the one who created the world and the situation and the antagonists, so technically I am the one challenging the characters.
Hi there Wendy!
Thanks for joining us. :)
What you are describing fascinates me.
I don't usually have other people's characters start acting independently of the story that they are in for books.
But when I get really, really frustrated with some aspect of a drama I am watching, I do occasionally start spontaneously "editing" the story. In one case, my "this would be a far better ending" that I came up with registered so strongly that it was the ending I remembered when I came back and rewatched the show several years later, making me very confused when the real ending started playing instead. Eventually I managed to figure out what happened. More recently, I found myself creating a puppet show that I apparently really wanted the protagonists to put on. It was a bit Shakespearian of me: "The play is the thing to catch the conscience of a king". Only in this case the king wasn't guilty, he was just being really, really stupid. And I guess I really wanted to have someone point that out to him. I wanted them to have the puppet king say "I know, I'll marry my long lost son to the daughter of the man who just tried to have him executed. That's sure to make him happy." "You are sure about that?" "Of course. They've known each other for forever." "And the fact that he has known her very well for a long time and still doesn't want to get married to her holds no significance to you?" "Absolutely none. She behaved very well during the ten minutes I spent with her, so clearly she'll make an excellent wife."
But anyway, that I do this for dramas and not for books suggests to me that my experience reading a story is significantly different than my experience in watching a story acted out. But for you there maybe isn't so much of a difference?
What could that difference be, though?
I do see images play in my head when I read a novel. I guess I kind of convert them into movies.
I also did the imagine ahead thing with text books. I would pause and try to work out how an experiment would be done for what they were talking about, and guess the results. Unfortunately, it made studying for tests/prepping for classes slower than it should have been. When I wrote exams I knew the beginning of my books and notes very thoroughly and some topics not at all because I didn't get to them. Not a good technique for cramming in the large volume of facts needed for university studies, but it was good practice for writing science fiction.
Oh I have one of those too! LOL. But the spreadsheets are more convenient for some stuff. They are for me, anyway ;)
I actually don't. But I'm not entirely certain why the presence or the absence of pictures would make a difference.
Maybe it's about this:
>35 WendyGamble: "I also did the imagine ahead thing with text books. ... Unfortunately, it made studying for tests/prepping for classes slower than it should have been."
Maybe it's about speed? Because I don't try to process the information in books as a movie, maybe I'm effectively "seeing" it in fast forward, and so I just don't have time to come up with alternate possibilities, but when I'm watching a show I am locked into the speed that it is displayed at, so my mind has time to wander off into alternate branches?
But that is totally a guess. :)
I guess I find playing with the database more fun?
Also, I like the control I get over how that output looks, since the database is all run via own hand-coded website. I am particularly fond of the family-tree display. I enter a character's parents in the database, and tah-dah, four generations of relatives automatically discovered and displayed.
Someday I will write code to randomly fill in family trees as desired. But first I need to finish the major code overhaul currently in the works.
re "Maybe it's about speed? Because I don't try to process the information in books as a movie, maybe I'm effectively "seeing" it in fast forward, and so I just don't have time to come up with alternate possibilities, but when I'm watching a show I am locked into the speed that it is displayed at, so my mind has time to wander off into alternate branches?"
Interesting theory. I don't try to process books like movies, it just happens. I tend to read slowly, unless there's a reason I have to do it quickly. I take it all in, think about it. If characters click a certain way, they start talking in my head. I tend to repress now that I write my own stories, as I feel like it's a waste of mental resources.
Alas, same idea with roll playing games. I used to enjoy D&D, was excited to move up levels etc., but now it seems sort of like wasted writing, to generate dialogue and such that is temporary, and in a copyrighted world.
I haven't played computer games really since the days of lemmings. Loved that!
I still find D&D and other tabletop RPGs a lot of fun, but I don't like to expend energy DM'ing them anymore, unless I'm working from a published module.
The last campaign my kids started was kicked off when I was in the middle of my latest health crash and doing a pretty effective zombie imitation. The kids didn't invite me to join.
I still do enjoy puzzle-solving type computer games (be it Lemmings or Myst), but I play them very rarely. Mostly I play simple logic games like Free Cell (okay, actually Towers, but it's not as well known) Minesweeper or Sudoku as a way of killing time when my brain is too dead to read (or write, of course, since that's harder.) But if I have the energy to create, I'd rather be writing. Or art or music or coding.
But I resemble your "in a copyrighted world" line...
When I first started writing, I started writing a Star Wars story, but I invented all new characters and all new settings. Next I started a Pern story, with all new characters and all new settings.
A few months I asked myself, "Why on earth am I writing in someone else's universe, if I'm doing all the work by myself anyway?" :D