Well-Behaved Characters by John Gilstrap

Like all authors, I suppose, I teach a number of writing classes and attend my share of conferences, and one of the questions that always comes up goes something like this: “I hear authors talk about how there comes a point in every story when the characters take over and start writing the story for you. Does that happen to you?”

The short answer is no; and frankly, it sort of ticks me off. I’d love to cede the process of plot development to my characters. Hell, somewhere in the middle of the second act, where all the tedious stuff is being manipulated and I’ve got to keep the pacing going, I’d cede the process to a stranger in a grocery store if he could make it any less painful.

As it is, my characters just sit there and wait to be told what to do. Lazy bastards. Not an original thought from any of them. In fact, during those tough times when I’ve written myself into a corner and don’t know how to extricate myself, I believe I’ve seen them chuckling at my plight. If I didn’t need the characters to make the story work, I swear sometimes that I’d fire them all.

I faced a storytelling crisis last weekend. Staring down the throat of an August 15 deadline for Grave Secrets (coming in June, ’09), I needed an ending. I mean, I already had an ending from the initial drafts, but I needed an ending. A kick-ass final sequence that would leave the reader exhausted and satisfied. The one I already had took care of the satisfaction part, but it didn’t have the roller coaster feel that I wanted.

So I shot one of the characters.

Don’t worry, it wasn’t a gratuitous thing. The shooting is organic to the plot, and it provides the twist I needed. It also wiped those sanctimonious smirks off their faces. Sometimes it helps to remind them of the power I have over their lives.

Seriously, though, when I found myself in this crisis-of-ending, I think I discovered what authors really mean when they talk about characters taking over. By shooting that character, I gave the other characters in the scene something to react to. Things started happening—things that I hadn’t planned for, which is really saying something for an author who is as outline obsessed as I—and new twists occurred to me as I wrote. I got really into the scene. The characters’ reality became so much my own reality that all I had to do was observe and record what I saw in my imagination. It was one of those moments of high concentration that I think every writer adores. When I finished and went back and read the thirty pages I’d written, I loved it. I’d nailed it.

I submitted the manuscript a week early!

Back to this business of characters taking on lives of their own. I’ve decided that when I’m in the zone, writing fiction has a lot in common with method acting. As the creator of characters, I spend a lot of time in my characters’ head space. Every action they take is the result of some plot-related motivation, and over time I come to understand those motivations. As plot twists come along—triggered by the actions of other characters whose motivations I’ve come to understand even as the rest of the cast have not—the reaction becomes obvious.
It’s not about them telling me what to do; it’s about me drawing them clearly enough to know what they’d do on their own if they were real enough to walk among us.

I do love this job.

10 thoughts on “Well-Behaved Characters by John Gilstrap

  1. John, I was in the middle of the story and trying to prevent that “mid story sag” when, I swear, in my head I heard the sound of a helicopter landing. A brand new character (who’d been hinted at during the first half of the book) simply dropped from the skies and inserted himself into the plot and my heroine’s life. He was a character full of energy, intrigue–and more than a little sense of danger. Just what was needed to shake things up. I had intended him to be a “good guy”, but he kept doing things to piss Kate off, so he had to get his comeuppance. But not until the second book, which comes out in October (grin).

  2. Great description of what goes on, John.

    I was with Reginald Hill on a panel when he was asked that question … he said, “I wish they would; I’d go have a spot of tea.”

    Fun answer but yours was more useful!

  3. Nice observations, John. When our characters become so real that they at least appear to take over and write themselves, then they are truly three dimensional to the reader. Regarding the second act middle or muddle, a writer friend once referred to it like pulling a piece of taffy apart. Suddenly, it sages in the middle and we have to find ways to keep the plot propped up before it breaks.

  4. I have regular arguments with my7 characters. But then, they are usually right so I’ve learned to let go and let them lead.

    Congratulations, Kill Zone authors, on the launch of your new blog!

  5. Great post, john, and welcome to the wonderful world of writing without an outline. I’m a big believer in killing off those shameless little buggers, too…

  6. Great Post John – though I have written stuff and been surprised by what the characters have said or done – but obviously it’s just my perverted subconscious at work! In my first book I knew at one point that ‘he had to die’ even though I wasn’t planning on doing it. I haven’t had the satisfaction, as yet, of bumping off a character just because he (or she – let’s be fair!) was pissing me off but I look forward to it!

  7. Oh, yay. Another Gilstrap novel. Yay, you! Can I pre-order it now, huh, huh?

    My characters often tell me where they want to go, what they want to wear, and, especially, what they want to eat. But I do believe that writing requires an unhealthy preference for the company of people who are imaginary or dead, so…I don’t let it bother me.

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