Character Rebellion!

There are many ways to approach a first draft. Some people like to plan – that is, outline – carefully, others like to fly by the seat of their pants, starting at the beginning and taking a wild ride page by page to the end. Either way, you’re bound to run into the problem of controlling your characters. You’ll have a pretty strong idea of what you want them to do. Problem is, they’re going to want to do something else.

Do you let them?

Almost every time I look back over something I’ve written, I find that the place I felt I lost control of my characters is just about the same place they started to gain life. Often, one of my first major edits is to go back through the beginning, recasting my characters in the light I discovered along the way. That is to say, the way I thought they would turn out was not the way they did… In fact, they turned out way better. Now I must inject that life into the dead puppets I was manipulating through the first few chapters.

Because the truth is, if your characters don’t have some choice, they are exactly that: dead puppets. They are you doing your thing… they have never transcended into the reality of quality make-believe. But every character desires this transcendence. I believe on the deepest level this is what story is about: living vicariously through the choices and consequences of characters.

As a plot develops and a story unfolds, the various players reveal over time their values, their willingness to compromise, their tendencies, their characteristics. Many of these – as they should be – are designed by the author to fulfill a particular function. Many of these are not functional, but are unavoidably you – the context and the perspective of the author. But many are manufactured at whim or by the necessities of a scene. If an author is true to the integrity of his or her characters, these follow a pattern that to some degree is pre-determined. But to a larger degree, it patterns itself. The characters make small decisions that reveal their character over time.

Then we come to that point where we realize our characters – in all the facets they have slowly revealed to us – would not make the choice we had decided for them. And we have to ask ourselves: Are we the masters of this tale? Or are the players?

The answer depends on the nature and the purpose of the story. Sometimes we write about activity and consequences, where the origin of the story was in situations that had no particular players. What if – the imagination went – a woman cheated on a man and he killed her for revenge. How would he do it? Here, the question is not would he do it, but how would he do it. It makes no sense, then, to allow this imaginary husband to decide not to kill his wife. Instead, this story focuses on the mechanical questions, the practical problems presented to the character and his solutions to them.

But maybe the imagination went – a woman cheated on a man; what would he do for revenge? This is a very different story, one that probes and prods a character psychologically, that seeks the truth of a single human being. If this character comes to the point we realize he would do something very different, then we are at liberty to allow him. More than that, we are obliged to allow him, for this is our own moment of discovery as authors.

A lot of times, our characters really want to be in the second story, but we want them to be in the first. My advice: don’t force them. Trying to wrestle them into the situations you desire will sap the energy you need to tell the story you intended. But don’t abandon your story. Thank the character for growing beyond his or her ability to serve, then politely excise them. Cut them out completely. Sometimes you have to fire a character, and replace them with a simpler employee, one who is easier to manipulate.

(Of course, if every character you hire rebels…there may be something wrong with your story. Just think about it.)

Finally, what to do with that character who became too big for his britches? Set him aside… I highly recommend you write his story as soon as you finish the one you’re on. It sounds like it’s got some life to it.