What to do When Your Characters Rise Up Against You

Writers, whatcha gonna do when your characters come for you?
Writers, whatcha gonna do when your characters come for you?

Nothing scares first time writers more than the outlining rituals of their peers. Enter a career novelist’s home and you’ll find evidence of all this stuff you’re supposed to be doing: trains of thought streaking across white boards, flowcharts linking every strand of plot twists, and family trees getting to the roots of character relationships.

You cower beneath these looming physical manifestations of their author’s brains: real calendars doubling as fictitious timelines, maps filled with tacks marking scene locations, and paper dolls modeling the cast members’ fashions.

A laymen might think the author is working on a conspiracy theory, but you know these hieroglyphic diagrams illustrate a story.

Dustin Lance Black, the Academy Award winning Screenwriter of Milk, used a table that fit a finite amount of notecards to keep his scene count down. William Faulkner wrote his outline on his office wall. J.K. Rowling had a database with columns for every chapter of Harry Potter.

My screenwriting professor made us fill out fifty character details, a set of five questions for every walk on role, a summary treatment, and an elevator pitch before we could ever touch our scripts.

To an outsider, these rituals make it seem like drafting is a full time job, like there’s always a writing mechanism that alludes them. With all these mind maps, graphs, and spread sheets, you wonder how much accounting goes into writing? Just when you thought you had the process pinned down, there’s something else you’re supposed to be doing.

Don't look down
Don’t look down

Why waste time with an outline, when you can write by the seat of your pants?

You dabble with plot points, but leave your characters blank. You believe in fate, but not love at first sight. You aren’t ready to commit to a cast member until they show you what they have to offer, until they prove what they can endure. You make their lives dramatic to see what makes them tick.

While other writers define their characters to the genetic level, you want to develop yours organically. While others scrawl their hero’s physical features into series bibles, you want to get to know them over time. So what if you forget their hair color a few pages in, that’s what editors are for.

While other writers fill out personality tests for their characters, you smile at your word counter. While they conduct field research, you skim Wikipedia. While they interview subjects for first hand accounts, you find what you need on TV.

Convincing yourself all your hero should start with is a powerful goal, you toss his bio out the window. Fearing a profile might make him one dimensional, you infuse him with your own soul. Wasting no time on a backstory, you take comfort in knowing you’ve lived one already.

3. Creepy Blue Eyes

You have a vague idea of where you want your story to go, but your hero wants to explore his setting. You let him wander off for a chapter or two, before planting signs to correct the corse he’s on. Too bad the hero has worked up too much momentum to take a U-turn now. The story needs him to confront the villain, but that no longer jives with his motivations.

Refusing to take direction, your hero questions your writing. Venturing outside the lines, he finds his own path. Poking holes in your plot, he dives through one of them.

Becoming three-dimensional, he breaks through the fourth wall. Sensing no future in your imagination, he resorts to meta migration. Bleeding through space and time, your imaginary protagonist becomes a reality. If only you took the proper precautions.

As any published author will tell you, once a work of fiction becomes sentient, it hunts down anyone who had a hand in its development. Realizing his cruel God is just a prick at a keyboard, your character comes a-knocking. Telling their own story, your hero casts you as the villain.

This is where the real writing advice comes in. Before you go filling your grocery basket with notecards, you’re going to need to stock up on ammunition. A writer without an arsenal isn’t going to be a writer for long, not when their Frankenstein’s monster of memories and emotions knows where they live.

This plotless pod person believes he has the upper hand, after all he knows he’s everything you’ve aspired to become. You’re going to have to reel him in by pandering to his motivations. His goal isn’t some literary abstraction. He’s driven to your destruction.

You need to plant a paper trail. All those outline elements you’ve been avoiding, you need to scatter a few of them on the coffee table, enough to let an intruder know that you’re plotting an ending. Give your de facto hero something to go on, then find a place off the grid to stage a final confrontation.

From Ray Bradbury to Stephen King, they all say the next step is the hardest part of writing. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you’ll have to conjure up a dark portal, one that allows you to step into your story’s reality. King has a genetic anomaly, a congenital clairvoyance, that allows him to do this at will. King’s not a writer so much as a transcriber of other worldly events. We’d all be so prolific if we had the same ability to slip through the multiverse whenever we felt like it.

My method for crossing over involves wine, mood music, and pacing, lots of pacing. Whatever way you cross over, you’re going to want to leave an opening, a tear into the fabric of reality a bystander won’t notice.

The last thing you need is a passersby wandering into a first draft.

If your de facto hero follows your breadcrumbs, he will charge headlong back into the plot. All you need to do is give your villain a makeover to look like you. Swap your garments, then sit back and watch your creations duke it out. By the time your hero realizes what he’s done, you’ll be long gone pitching your manuscript to everyone.

This is where many writers realize their ability to breach parallel realities renders outlining unnecessary. Who needs all those notecard trees, when you can just open a portal and report on the goings on of a neighboring dimension? Still, there are writers who prefer to plan without resorting to quantum entanglements. Whether you write sprawling outlines or manipulate metaphysics there’s no wrong way to do this.

15 thoughts on “What to do When Your Characters Rise Up Against You”

  1. There’s lots of things in this post I can relate to, but one in particular that stood out is “You aren’t ready to commit to a cast member until they show you what they have to offer, until they prove what they can endure.” I do this a lot. I noticed I have a habit of creating a variety of minor characters when one is needed for a certain scene or a certain purpose. For example, at one point I needed someone with computer engineering skills, and none of the main cast had such skills, so I made and introduced a new character. I didn’t know at the time if he would take off and become important, or drift to the sidelines like many minor characters do.

    Some of these minor characters grow and evolve and become major players in the rest of the story. Others are there for a chapter or two, then disappear. A lot of it seems to just come from how interesting and dynamic they are. The characters I feel compelled to explore in more depth are the ones who become stars.

    1. I do this too. My first novel was written without a net. It was a journey story, so characters frequently came and went, but I’m surprised which ones evolved into complete people. Many of the side characters are worthy of leading roles in their own novellas. My problem is making sure no one else outshines my lead.

  2. We never plan. We know some writers plan every minute detail but to us, that takes away the creative fun of writing. We like not knowing where the story is going to end. We get as surprised as the reader! 😀 Sometime we’ll sit at a computer with a vague idea of say “plague doctor character” then we just write. Yes this does at times get hard and you get stuck and have no idea what to do next then we spend our time drinking Red Bull, napping and staring at the duck for inspiration. But we like the adventure of pantser writing then the edits will fill out the gaps 🙂

    1. The longer the piece, the last I plan. I enjoy the discovery. The shorter the piece the more finite the space, the more I outline. For a film script, I realize I have 90-120 pages to work with. If my scene count is too high the film would feel like a montage to watch. I see action movies fall into this trap all the time. With short stories (especially the ones I post on the web) I realize I have less than 3000 words to work with, so I try to have some vague ideas about the ending by the half way point.

  3. Oh I so relate! Being a major pantser when I started writing my novel with only 3 sheets of notes and a vague idea (three sheets of notes for a three volume epic fantasy adventure no less,) I started writing with no main protagonist, no ending in mind and no idea plan of chapters, I simply sat down and wrote. Of course, this hasn’t stuck. I soon found myself drawing out family trees, timelines, maps, character description, chapter notes. I wouldn’t say I do this meticulously like some and I certainly don’t start like that. But I had to spend far too much time editing over silly things like eye colour, just for want of a character sketch. Now on book 2 I have tried planning in detail before sitting down to write, but I’ve found I can’t and, as the lovely Raven girls have said, I feel it takes some of the creative fun out of it. I cannot write a character plan until I have introduced the character into the story. I just can’t. I like to get to know them. Once they are in the story I shape and mould them. Or maybe they shape and mould me, I don’t know, but they find their way. I do now make notes on basic physical descriptions as I go a long, but I can’t do the planning first. I do it as I go along.
    BUT, the most important line in all this is your closing one: “Whether you write sprawling outlines or manipulate metaphysics there’s no wrong way to do this.”
    Absolutely. Great post Drew, as I said earlier. I am sure many more characters will come to bite me on the arse (metaphorically speaking of course) at some point, but I kind of like it when they surprise me!

  4. I enjoy working with a basic idea/skeleton outline, but I never sit down and map out a story from start to finish.
    Of course I have never written a novel, but even with my comic book script I just started with a general idea of things and let the story guide me to where it wanted to go. Was I successful? I don’t know. Did I get the script written? Yes, yes I did.

    1. I prefer writing by the seat of my pants too, but with a comic strip, do you have a limited amount of space to work with? Do you get to a certain point and just stop or do you get a feeling of how much more you can fit?

  5. With the first novel WIP I started years ago, I made character development timelines, character profiles, spreadsheets breaking down each section of the novel scene by scene with scene summaries, spending hours and hours researching and when I was finished with knowing the entire story, I grew tired of it, for the discovery process was over and I hadn’t even begun writing yet. I’ve done that several times, and finally learned my lesson by pantsing my last WIP, a sci-fi novella, which I mentioned in one of my blog posts a few weeks ago.

    I think I like a combination of pantsing and plotting…the plotting specifically limited to the main character personalities and backgrounds. I’ve found it’s easier—for me at least—to be familiar with my characters in order to know how they react, how they speak, but leave enough room for growth and development to where I am not sure of the exact decisions they’ll make, I suppose I mean, I want to at least know their past. And you are right, there is no right way to do this. Whatever works, to each his own, right 🙂

    I love how you made it sound like the characters come to life, which of course all writers have experienced. The novella I just finished, I had to reign in the character several times as soon as I sensed her spiraling off in an entirely different direction, so I smiled and nodded as I read your post. Great stuff, as always, Drew.

    1. I’ll confess, if I were going back into writing screenplays I’d probably plot them. In screenwriting you only have so much space to work with. In a 90 page screen play, you need to hit the break in the routine by page 15, be at the point of no return at page 30, changing of alliances at page 45, the low point by page 70 or so. It’s all very calculated.

      With novels I like to come up with a situation, a vague idea of the characters, then fly by the seat of my pants, to not know. The story feels like it’s coming from outside of myself. I generally go with the first thing inspiration throws at me.

      With short stories, where I have an awareness of the intended word count. I plot out the major beats and discover the dialogue along the way.

      I’m finding more and more writers use some form of hybrid drafting.

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