Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Why Your Characters Are Smarter Than You

Hello all! Today I have the honor of hosting Angeline on My First Book. In case you're staring at the screen with a slightly confused expression, I am still taking part in the Novel Films Blogfest and will be posting tonight.

In the mean time, more on Angeline.

Angeline Trevena is a writer based in rural Devon, UK. She has been writing her entire life and is a published poet, short story writer and journalist. She has completed NaNoWriMo twice and is currently taking part in the summer version; Camp NaNoWriMo.

You can find her at her website or follow her on her blog.

Alrighty then. Take it away, Angeline.


Why Your Characters Are Smarter Than You

I admit it, I'm not a planner. I start a novel or a short story with two things in my head; the beginning and the ending. I have a vague idea of how I'll get from one to the other, but that's always open to change. And why this haphazard approach? Because I know that my characters are smarter than me.

Everyone will agree that you need to know your characters. Every single thing your character does, whether it's leaving their husband or having jam on their toast, every decision they make is motivated by what has happened before. This might be what has happened in the book, or pre-scenic action.

Before you even write one word of the story you must know you character as well as you know yourself. Beyond the basics of their age, occupation and physical appearance, you need to know if they ever broke a bone as a child, or if they prefer orange juice with bits in it, or which wrist they wear their watch on. All of these things shape their future and are, in turn, shaped by their past, however insignificant they may seem. If your character broke their ankle as a child, it may still give them pain on cold, damp evenings. They may prefer bits in their orange juice because their Grandfather owned an orangeree and that's how he made it. They might wear their watch on their right arm because they are trying to cover scars with it. If you aren't going to plan your novel, it's even more important to know your characters inside out.

As you start writing you will hit a point when your character does something that surprises you. Don't panic, just go with it. In fact, you should celebrate this moment; if your characters are starting to make their own decisions it means you've written them well enough for them to be real.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation when you had to make an instant decision? When you really had to improvise and think on your feet? And did you react in exactly the way you thought you would? Probably not. We can always surprise ourselves, and your characters won't always do what you expect them to either.

It can be scary to feel like you're losing control, but sometimes you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride. As long as you keep your end goal focused in your head, then it's no bad thing to let your character wander, let them explore the world around them and the world inside them too. Afterall, you have the entire editing process, and that's your domain, that's where you can put your foot down and pull your characters into line.

If you have to force your characters to do something, then it's probably not right. You don't want to alienate your readers by leaving them thinking "Why did he do that?" or "She would never have said that."

I have often found that my characters have much better ideas than me. They kiss people I hadn't thought they would, they say things I didn't expect, they introduce characters I didn't outline and sometimes they change the entire story, and more often than not their ideas make for a much more exciting, engaging, full and believable story. They're living it, they're breathing it, and they have an insight into their lives that is only settled somewhere in your subconscious. Your characters are just the instrument you use to unlock that.

Never worry about losing control in the first draft: let your characters breathe, let them stretch themselves, let them experiment. You can take back control in the second draft; brandishing your big red editing pen like an unforgiving sword.

Thanks so much for this great post! Sounds like I could have written it. My characters also hijack my writing, leading me faaaaaaar away from what I thought was possible.

What about you ladies and gents? Ever have a character take over the run of the story? Do you ever manage to go back to where you thought your story should go, or do you just let the character have full control?  


  1. Thanks for these words of wisdom Angeline. Sometimes we only find out more obscure things about our characters as we write and they slowly admit us to their inner world. I often feel the characters I love most are standing behind me, reading as I type, and tapping me on the shoulder when I don't get them quite right! Jane Gray

  2. Great post! I usually tend to outline most of my stories - and even still the characters end up changing on me. It's always a great feeling to have the story take a life of it's own! Nice to meet you Angeline! :)

  3. Loved the post, I too believe that its okay to make our characters move according to their will and lead us in a direction they want to take.The story does take surprising turns. Its nice to meet you, Angeline.

  4. Loved this interview, and Angeline's thoughts on letting characters breathe and stretch themselves. It's how I feel about mine!

    Thank you!

  5. I find the oddities that pop up with my characters, isn't really about the characters themselves. It's about people related to my characters. This character suddenly has a daughter, and this one suddenly has a brother.

  6. Thank you to all of you for your lovely comments, and thank you Misha for letting me take over here.

    I think people who write more instinctively and off-the-cuff are often made to feel guilty for not spending a month planning every fine detail before starting their story. It's always a great relief to me to know that so many other people write like I do!


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