Well Behaved Characters (Redux)

By John Gilstrap

FULL DISCLOSURE: The article that I originally planned to post today isn’t ready for prime time. It’s a nuanced look at writing in the white space–making what isn’t on the page resonate as clearly as what is. I’ll post it next time, I hope.

What follows is an edited version of one of my TKZ entries from 12 years ago(!). I called it:

Well Behaved Characters

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.

When I first wrote this post, I was staring down the throat of an approaching and 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 was back then—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.

So, TKZers, are your characters lazy and wait for direction, or do they take over the story?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

26 thoughts on “Well Behaved Characters (Redux)

  1. My characters come into my dreams and give me plot descriptions and whole scenes. I broke down and wrote a first draft in three days after dreaming about it for months.

    • In 25 years and 22 books, I don’t remember a single time that I’ve dreamed a coherent story. Nor do I remember ever dreaming about the story I’m writing. I never realized that before.

      Now that I think about it, I’m not sure I’d want them to visit my dreams.

  2. My characters do as they’re told. They’re the recruits and I’m Sergeant Carter.
    .
    I had one character get a bit out of hand a few years ago, pushing the boundaries. He wound up reciting limericks and getting totally hammered before hiding behind a wood stove where he started crying and speaking to his dead father.
    .
    That won’t happen again. A writer has to keep these miscreants in line.

  3. This book has had sticky points, and I’m not quite 20K in yet. I’ve discovered that what’s helping me is to bring the protagonist’s new wife into the scene and let them talk about ‘other stuff’ for a bit, and that seems to free my mind to get back to the meat. Those domestic scenes often get cut or drastically abbreviated, but the wife seems to know the right questions to ask. (And yes, I did end up with a dead body I hadn’t expected.)

  4. My characters are as real to me as anyone walking down our street here. Actually, they are more real since this is a popular street in the historic section of town and we get many people passing by and I know almost none of them. Three of my character friends were shot in the final chapters of my book, but they all survived. The bad guys, as in a lot of movies, were notoriously bad shots. I’m really excited about this book. It’s my first and will be released on Sept 26, 2020. I’m afraid I can’t keep my fingers off the buttons at Amazon and keep looking at it. But I tell myself probably everyone feels like this with their very first novel.

  5. I write a close third POV, so I really get into their heads. I know what they’re thinking, and I know what they’ll do in any situation. Everything thus flows organically from their minds and actions. Sometimes they surprise me, but always in a way that makes sense for that character.

  6. My characters have never taken over the story. They stick me with the heavy lifting..LOL. But they come alive by the time I’ve completed a first draft. The first draft feels as though I am moving paper dolls around, going through motions. By the end they have a personality so when I go back and edit, it feels right to change the dialogue, thought bubbles and change metaphors to what that character would think or say. This feels magical to me. Manuscripts where this doesn’t happen for me turn out to be the ones that don’t sell and I have plenty of those! Thanks for the post.

  7. Oh, this made me laugh out loud! Thank you so much. I’m afraid right now I’m at the first phase, where I’m in the right frame of mind to shoot one of them in the foot so they’ll do something besides sit there waiting for my next cue. It’s not yet organic enough. But thank you for an enjoyable read.

  8. Characters are like real people whom you get to know over time as they slowly reveal themselves. Until the third book in my thriller series, I didn’t know the female lead had an alcoholic father who killed her mother in a drunken driving accident. In the fourth book, I found out that, at age 16, the male lead had come thisclose to murdering his abusive father.

    Yes, my characters take over the story. That’s b/c my subconscious knows where they need to go and what they need to do, often long before my conscious mind realizes it. When I go back later to edit, I recognize breadcrumbs they’ve dropped along the way.

    That aspect of writing is the most fun for me.

    • Debbie, that breadcrumbs bit is a real thing, isn’t it? In every book, I’ll realize that the answer I can’t find was lying there in plain sight the whole time.

  9. When my children were young, I was a stay-at-home mom (and not one of those helicopters…shudder!) I spent many hours just watching them at play, or eating with their fingers, but especially interacting with each other, as well as other children.Their minds were pretty much empty slates, but from the first moment after birth, they each were complete individuals. In order for me to learn who they were, I had to turn on my powers of observation…just watch them without intruding into their spaces. Eventually, their personalities, idiosyncrasies, and thought patterns emerged and made themselves known.

    So, when my 18-year-old son called me from Manhattan College-he was there on a full ride athletic scholarship-and declared he’d decided to leave school and become a bartender and live on a beach in France, I wasn’t thrown. I told him to have fun with that. I’d learned from watching and listening to him that he often came up with wild ideas and wasn’t shy about brave announcements. (He didn’t go…he lives in his hometown, is married with eight children, six adopted, and owns his own real estate development business.) I think if I’d flown off the handle, he’d be living on a beach in France to this day.

    All this to say, my characters, to me, are like my children. I watch and listen to them. They eventually tell me what’s going on, and sometimes they surprise the heck out of me.

  10. My characters are made to fit my plot and premise so they have their special jobs, and they know what to do. They can offer surprises, but those deepen the story rather than change it.

    I’ve had only one character mutiny and make a major shift in the plot. Floppy was the heroine’s cat. Gasp! I know! Cats are so pliant! Snicker. The novel was a science fiction romance, and Floppy was in the heroine’s first scene. He was an alien kitty, there just to show this ain’t Earth. He hopped onto her lap, announced to me he was sentient, and no hero need apply to protect this awesome lady. He was the cat for the job. He proved to be one of the most popular characters for readers, a major pain in the rear to the hero, and minor subplot in and of himself.

    All of this worked perfectly fine because the book was over 100,000 words which allowed me freedom to add in his subplot. I’d have tossed his mutinous furry butt out of a much smaller book.

  11. You mentioned method acting. In my pre-planning, I bring the characters in for improv work. They go to town, throwing me all sorts of potential motivations and actions. We have lots of fun, but then we start rehearsals (planning) and there even more tweaks are made. Dress rehearsal is the first draft. We open in New Haven, then make final changes before going on to Broadway.

    BTW, the move you described is based on Chandler’s famous advice, to wit: when you’re stuck, bring in a guy with a gun.

    • Absolutely. Improv is a good metaphor. I don’t really know much about my characters until they’ve worked together in a few scenes.

      And “the guy with a gun” thing isn’t just for when you’re stuck! Anytime things seem to be going too smoothly, bam! I throw my protagonist for a loop, preferably with something as inexplicable as a gunman crashing your party.

  12. When I was writing my first novel, I had that strange experience of characters saying and doing things I hadn’t planned for. Even in the climactic scene of the story, one of the characters did something so surprising, all I could think was, “You’re going to do WHAT?”

    I love the feeling of getting to know my characters better. With each chapter and each book, more of their past lives and hidden feelings are revealed. It’s like being a life-long friend of Clark Kent and then suddenly finding out … well, you know.

  13. You nailed it with this post, John. I’m so glad you re-posted. My characters do what they’re told . . . most of the time. Though they can surprise me. In my WIP, my main character left the yard for a minute and an important secondary character vanished. Gone! I was so deep in the zone, when I read over my pages the next day, I was like, where the hell did she go? Turned out to be a cool plot twist, but at the time it seemed to come out of nowhere. Love when that happens!

  14. I’m in the midst of my WIP, and my characters are screaming at me, end the story at 50K words. There’s something to be said for the pulp writers.

  15. “So I shot one of the characters.” … “By shooting that character, I gave the other characters in the scene something to react to.” Might have missed something here — but YOU didn’t shoot ‘that character’, another character did the deed. Which, in a manner of speaking, kind of undermines your thesis.

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