Let Your Characters Live and Breathe

Among my books on writing is a 1919 title, A Manual of the Art of Fiction, by one Clayton Meeker Hamilton, a professor at Columbia University. It’s a bit academic, but I’ve found some gems in it. Among them is the following. In his chapter on characterization, Hamilton states:

The careless reader of fiction usually supposes that, since the novelist invents his characters and incidents, he can order them always to suit his own desires: but any honest artist will tell you that his characters often grow intractable and stubbornly refuse at certain points to accept the incidents which he has foreordained for them, and that at other times they take matters into their own hands and run away with the story. Stevenson has recorded this latter experience. He said, apropos of Kidnapped, “In one of my books, and in one only, the characters took the bit in their teeth; all at once, they became detached from the flat paper, they turned their backs on me and walked off bodily; and from that time my task was stenographic––it was they who spoke, it was they who wrote the remainder of the story.”

Has that ever happened to you? I suspect it has. It’s one of the most pleasurable aspects of writing (though a little daunting if you’re a dedicated outliner).
So what should you do when a character starts making a few moves of his own?
1. Listen
As Madeleine L’Engle once put it, “If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it; the book is usually right.”
Take a breath and just let the turn of events soak in. When writing No Legal Grounds, about the stalking of a lawyer and his family, I had planned all along for the wife to leave the house and go off to stay with her sister. But when I got to that scene she wouldn’t go. Just wouldn’t do it. I tried to make her, but she told me to go pound sand.
So I walked around my writing desk thinking about it. I listened to her reasons. And it turns out she was right. She became a stronger character. Of course, I had to change my plans from that point on, which brings me to:
2.  Re-Imagine
Whether you are a plotter or a “pantser,” now is the time to jot some free-form notes on this new development.
Start with a general document on plot possibilities. Ask yourself questions like:
What further trouble can happen to this character?
What sorts of things has this character unloosed by her independent actions?
How have the other character relationships changed?
And so on. Next, add to your character’s voice journal (this is an exercise I follow and recommend in all my workshops. It’s a stream-of-consciousness document in the character’s own voice). Let the character talk to you about what’s going on, and what she might want to do about it.
3. Plan and Write the Next Two Scenes
Don’t worry about changing your entire outline yet. Just do the next two scenes. Write them. The act of writing itself is the most important way to let the characters live and breathe. Get a feel for who they are now, by writing out the consequences. Then you’ll be in much better shape to write to the end.
So what about you? Do your characters ever take off on you? How do you handle it?


19 thoughts on “Let Your Characters Live and Breathe

  1. My characters definitely live their own lives. One in particular refuses to follow my dictates and always goes his own ways. I find this to be refreshing in many ways, because I don’t have to write him so much as record him. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but more often than not, he’s better at living his stories than I am at telling his stories. I love him for that, he makes my life easier. Kharzai, you are a blessing in disguise. Violent disguise, but a blessing none the less.

  2. “Don’t worry about changing your entire outline yet. Just do the next two scenes.”

    Agreed. Don’t let fear of not knowing what happens next paralyze you from sitting down and typing.

    Me, I’m lucky if I plan as far as two scenes ahead. I have a rough sense of where the story ought to go, but when I get stuck I just “write the next thing.” What’s the next logical or interesting thing that could happen here? Our hero wakes up in the hospital after a brutal fight scene. The next logical thing: they check out and go home. The next interesting thing: the nemesis shows up and taunts them while they’re weak and helpless. Pick one and go with it!

  3. I’m a pantser with just enough control that it doesn’t read like stream of consciousness — sometimes. The highlights happen when the characters take over, and I record “my” best lines. From this post, I can see that providing some general direction up front can give me an idea of what the next thing will be. Thanks for this good information.

  4. Jim, this has happened to me many times in the past. It’s sort of like being a football head coach who calls each play (outlined chapter). If the quarterback decides at the last moment to call an audible, and it works, I let him do it. After all, it’s the characters’ story, not mine.

    I know we’ve touched on this topic before at TKZ, and there are some who say “it’s the writer that’s in charge. The characters should obey.” But sometimes the characters might have a better idea. Let them run and see what happens.

    This is also a big hangup with those who don’t outline. They believe committing to an outline is restrictive and counter-creative. Actually, the opposite is true. And outline is like planning a vacation–you know you’ll start from home and wind up in Disney World. But the real advantage is not only knowing where you’re going, but being able to take all those interesting side trips along the way, the ones that you never anticipated.

    • I agree with you, Joe. I write long, detailed outlines and this time I’ve run against a brick wall with one character insisting he’s the protagonist. He’s right, of course, and my outline needs a major overhaul. As long as I know where the plot is going, I’ll let the characters tell me what they like and what they don’t like.

  5. I’ve had this happen quite a few times. I take it as a sign that everything is going well, because I know the characters and the story well enough that my subconscious is sending up smoke signals of a better way to handle the story.

    Most recently, I’d planned on a secondary character to go pretend to be a bad guy, but when the conversation came up, the characters decided amongst themselves this was a stupid idea. After hearing their argument, I agreed.

    These are some excellent tips on handling the situation the next time it comes up!

    Something I’ve wondered about the character voice journal, since I’ve read about it in your books and heard you mention it elsewhere…do you have a specific set of questions you ask the character to get started? Or do you just start writing something, anything that springs to mind in the voice of the character? Do you have a set pattern of when you write in your journal, like during project planning, at the mid point of the novel and right at the end, or do you just do it as needed?

    Thanks for the great post!

    • Elizabeth, I do have a few questions I “prompt” the character with (e.g., growing up, parents, schooling). I want the character to answer with emotion, too. One question I ask is, What is something in you closet you don’t want anyone to find? Etc.

      I do this at the beginning stages, part of character creation. But I’ll do it in the writing, too, if I feel like I need to get deeper.

      The nice thing about this is there is no set length. It’s an “as needed” technique.”

  6. I agree 100%. Just this week I was introduced to the world of military-grade hardened writing pens. They make superb weapons. Now my MC is seriously considering threatening to jam one into the ear of an FBI agent. We’re going to discuss it more when we get to the scene where she is wearing a burqa because it is the easiest way for a woman to bop around Lagos unnoticed. We’ll see how her mood is then.


  7. I’ve read articles where people swear this doesn’t happen. It’s like the argument that animals don’t really have personalities. I wonder if they’ve ever written a story with good characters? A good character always takes the reins at least once a story. I’m always surprised at how resourceful they are.

    I’ve also found that the more flawed a character is, the more he’s likely to talk a lot and do his own thing. A perfect person just stands there and waits for instructions.

  8. In fifteen books, the only character I ever had to rebel was a cat. How is that not a surprise?

    I create my characters to fit the plot, not fit the plot to my characters, so it’s next to impossible for them to rebel over anything major.

    Still, I learn small things about them that informs the plot and the book.

    • This makes sense. You represent what I would call the classical imagination: you are perfecting a form that already exists–your plot. The romantic imagines himself/herself shoving forward into unknown territory. This is of course nonsense, but it’s what energizes the romantic’s imagination, and in the end that’s all that matters.

  9. Hey Jim,

    Great post, and I agree.

    The times I ignore my characters they lead me down rabbit trails and I end up having to cut my intentions, and listen to theirs.

    Ah, the creative imagination…

    This part of the writing process really freaks my non-writing friends out. They worry about me, and I find it exhausting to try to explain.

    Happy Easter, all.

  10. Now that was another great post.
    Speaking of “gems”, Jim, one may never again have to purchase one of your how to books on writing … Just save all of “The Kill Zone”, blogs and there you have it:)
    That being said, when may we expect your audio how to books be listed on audible.com?
    Regarding, characters having a mind of their own, or a distant say in their time-life on your printed page—I don’t know.
    What I do know is some demand biography. They want me to explore their past before they will go through their present. It’s a haunting experience.
    That has led me to pondering about fiction writing, and I came up with this a while ago. It may sound silly, or as John Denver may have said, “far out but here it is…
    Feel free to delete if it corrupts the blog.
    1. 12/31/12 My Opinion on Writing and Reading fiction for pleasure or pain.
    From where, does our creative content come? It is a mystery.
    Could it originate in an alternative universe, or systems that we cannot comprehend, only to be expressed by our past or future experiences in those universes, or systems?
    On the other hand, perhaps it is tapping into the collective consciousness (all human thought from the beginning) or the infinite collective consciousness (collection of all thought, from all life form—physical, non-physical, animal, vegetable … Everything. ARE we writers, merely putting to paper events from the past present or future and reporting them as we see or saw it?
    And… Since there is no end, only an expanding now—isn’t there endless scenarios of our soul’s experiences.
    Pretty cool to think about it — what do you think?

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