Are You Being Too Much of a Control Freak About Your Characters?

Are You Being Too Much of a Control Freak About Your Characters?

Every writer eventually encounters characters that becomes very real. Our imaginary characters actually start to come to life. They become real, living, breathing people floating around in our heads. Sounds a bit crazy, but it’s true. Perhaps that’s why authors aren’t typically the sanest folks: we’ve got dozens of different characters fighting for head space.

That it’s a good thing though. A story is most successful (i.e., readable, enjoyable, and true-to-life) when an author is deeply involved with the people in his books. Only when you get right under the skin of your characters and understand them on a very personal level can you make them come alive to your readers as well.

Naturally though, a living, breathing character must come complete with his own personality and will. You might have plans for your character, but as the story develops, he may let you know he has other ideas. That’s a very clear turning point for any author: do you corral your character, or do you let him loose on the world? Taking the second path can dramatically change your whole story for the better.

Corral Your Inner Control Freak

If you encounter a character who seems to have a mind of his own, often the very best thing to do is to loosen your grip. Many authors are control freaks to some degree. After all, here you are, building worlds and dictating futures like some kind of little god. The problem is that while it might be great fun to carefully control a plot or a character, it doesn’t always lend itself to a great story.

Anyone who has read my work knows that I’m not big on rules. Writing rules are fine and dandy as a foundation, but they can squelch your creativity if you’re not careful. I’ve read some technically perfect works that were dry as dust. I’ve also read some glaringly imperfect works that were so brilliant they changed my life. However, there is one old rule I believe in firmly: your characters should drive your plot–not the other way around.

Obviously, outlining your story is smart. Without a plan, a story will end up disjointed and confusing. But don’t hold on to your original ideas too tightly. As Eisenhower so aptly put it,

I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Some planning and outlining is necessary, but if your character starts to take things in a new direction, let it happen. Maybe it won’t work out, but try it and see if you like where things end up. You might be surprised how much better the story turns out.

The Evolution of Your Characters Is Inevitable

If you’re finding your writing is dry or inauthentic, it may be because you’re forcing your characters into roles and situations that no longer work. This is particularly true if much time has passed since your original draft. Since then, your characters have become real flesh-and-blood people to you, and your old ideas may no longer resonate with who those characters are today.

And that’s just it: we change, so why wouldn’t our characters change? Real life is fluid, and each of us will shift with our ever-changing environments, with our circumstances, and with each new encounter. Expect no less from your characters.

Disclaimer: Some Control Is Necessary

After all this “let go” talk, please realize I’m not advocating some willy-nilly approach to writing. Organization, planning, and careful drafting are important if you’re aiming for a cohesive, readable story. In the end, you are still the writer, and your characters … well, they’re still your creations. You need to maintain a degree of control in order to make your story believable (sans plot holes and other glaring mistakes).

However, remember that listening to your characters might take you to unexpected and better places. If your plot and environment aren’t adapting to your characters, don’t force things. Step back, hand the reins to your characters, and see if they might not lead you in a much better direction.

Tell me your opinion: What good experiences have you had from letting your characters take over? Any bad experiences?

Are You Being Too Much of a Control Freak About Your Characters?

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About Peter J Story | @PeterJStory

Peter J Story is the author of Things Grak Hates. He lives in San Antonio, Texas with his wife and their two pugs. He writes code by day and fiction by night, considering himself an author of deliberate, genre-free stories with a soul. While his is not a pen name, he does enjoy chuckling to himself about how well it suits his passion.

Comments

  1. Nope. Not a control freak about my characters. They happen. I don’t know HOW they happen. In the first draft they come from somewhere deep inside, and when I let them out, they go where they will go. We (the characters and I) usually agree on where they go. Where and how the story will end. Things that I never consciously thought come out in my characters, fitting the story, but often surprising me. I love my characters, but if I try to control them, I run head-on into writer’s block.
    It’s in the editing phase that I get rid of the clutter. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of clutter. Mainly, I think, because I have a simple mind. I like things clear and simple from the start. When editing, it’s usually too much dialogue, sloppy dialogue, undirected dialogue, the bits and pieces which add nothing to the story flow, but which landed on the page in the heat of the exchange.

    • Yeah, I’ve found that to be one of my main sources of writer’s block too. I was actually hitting a wall at one point with “Things Grak Hates” until I realized I was keeping Grak saner than his outlined personality wanted to be. Once I let go of that, he just did his own thing and ended up quite fascinating. Dark, but fascinating.

  2. Oh my goodness, this was my week!! My protagonist has finally come alive after 5.3 drafts, and this time around getting him to do what I need him to do has been insanely difficult. He was simply being too practical to accept his “call to action.” After a talk with a fellow Myers-Briggs-typology-loving friend, I realized I just haven’t been giving him the proper motivations. I knew idealism alone wouldn’t move him, but I didn’t realize that AMBITION would. (He’s an ENTJ.) Once my friend pointed that out to me, all it took was a few changes in dialogue and it had my character thinking about his “call to action” in a totally different way! Sometimes you just have to reassess how well you know the character and if they are lacking the proper motivation.

  3. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Peter!

  4. If my characters aren’t taking over, I know I’m doing something wrong. They tell me when I’m trying to make things go in a direction they’re not supposed to go, and they tell me when I have the plot or setting all wrong.

  5. My characters are being stinkers right now. I’m trying to revise my skeliton first draft into a recognizible, coherent, flowing story from the 30+ Major and semi-major scenes… And they throw TWO other stories at me! And one of them is just a writing exercise that can never be published!
    I need them to just cooperate! I’ve tried asking them, but all they said is “you already had our help, go work on something else.” Maybe they need a break…

    • Oh, I hate it when they start telling a completely different story. On the bright side, perhaps you could turn that into a sequel. Or maybe you could fold that into a minor detail told in passing to give the character more flesh for this story.

  6. This reminds me of my hobby, live action role playing. It is a common joke among game masters (at least in my region) that no live action role playing plot will survive first contact with the player characters. You plan a story, yet the characters (and their players) have their own way of dealing with things and everything might go into a complete different direction.

    Maybe it’s a bit similar with some novel characters – they just have their own head and won’t take any directions from the author 😉

    • That’s true. I used to run some tabletop RPG’s, and I can attest to that shifting element. Perhaps that’s why I give my characters so much freedom. Food for thought.

  7. Because I’m a plotter rather than a panster, I tend to layout the entire story before I start writing. The downside of this is I don’t really know my characters as well. As I’m writing the draft and getting to know them, things may happen that drive the story the way it needs to go rather than how I planned it to go. If it increases the tension, makes the story better, I go with it. If not, I don’t. Sometimes, I just like to see where the characters want to go.

    • I can relate. I tend to get thorough with my outline too, while staying open to the possibility of completely ditching everything if need be. And since I outline my characters thoroughly, this gives them more room to guide the story.

    • I feel like what is needed to really make a story real (or at least feel like it) is good characters. I found when I just started looking for more people in the stories, they brought their own motives, and personalities, and helped shape my story in to one about people conflicting against each other.
      In addition, I can never really force my characters to be who they’re not. They have their own flaws and strengths, people they don’t like, and things they want (and sometimes from the protagonist). What is a character, but a person refashioned into someone else in a different situation.

  8. I don’t know why, but my characters always need my guidance. They don’t even infiltrate in my thoughts unless I intentionally sit down to think about them.
    Maybe I am not that good of a writer yet. But that just make things more challenging to me. 🙂

    • There are all types of writers. Some folks outline every detail, while others just dive right into the story with hardly any planning. So I wouldn’t worry about it.
      Though, if you’re interested in letting your characters control more of the story, I find it useful to create a detailed character sketch, including backstory, for each of them. I don’t tend to use it all, but it helps in knowing what drives them.

      • Thanks, being in good mentorship of Katie, I was introduced to this idea and now use it religiously. 😀
        And yesterday I was wailing over my characters and just today, I found one of my character acting so strange, my first instinct was to give him a good scolding and then getting him back on track. Then this post came in my mind and I decided to play along. The results astounded me, and were so much fun.

      • Austin J says

        Interestingly enough, I come up with detailed personalities and backstories for my characters, and I have never once had them “come to life” on me. I’ve always had to think “this character’s traits or backstory are relevant to this scene, how can I have them express this?”

        That said, I have a friend for who creating characters, giving them a personality and letting them loose in a scene is the only way he can write. Even minor characters get a personality to guide their interactions, and it sounds fascinating.

  9. Well thank you so much for the post. Even though I may be a bit extreme in that I don’t plan on paper. It is a lie that I don’t plan. I speak to characters and I know them. It makes writing that much fun. I go so far as almost method acting some of my characters. Letting them go can make them seem more real. Great post.

  10. This was a timely post for me to read. I am an aspiring writer. I am attempting to write my first fiction book. I’ve noticed that I’ve started to think about my characters as real people and noticed that they have directed part of the story. It sounded strange to me at first but reading your post was reassuring. I feel that as I get to know them more they tend to direct the writing and story more. It’s sometimes unsettling but I think it’s a good thing.

    Thanks.

  11. I let my characters do what I want, but I’ve never been pulled to a new ending because of it. Maybe that’s because my characters (plus a few scenes/events) and their interactions are often the first thing to pop into my head. A lot of the middle with get reworked (to whatever extent I had planned it), but the ending is generally the same as the original plan.

  12. Yeah, my mentor-archetype charrie decided to die at the end of the book.
    On another note, I have a hunch that I’m not letting my ISTJ hero be emotional enough. The whole reason he’s the hero is because he loves the main character (the only one who can save the kingdom) so he is determined to protect her. I don’t want future readers to fangirl over him. (I really, really didn’t even want to bring that possibility up.) But then, he’s really not that kind of attractive guy. He’s this weird awkward nerd who was raised by old people and is often too quiet for his own good, so I know I should just go for it.
    I should. I will.

  13. Good characterization creates sentient beings who start to have minds of their own. It’s good for the author to listen, for they may have ideas that actually make the story better, as long as these ideas work with the whole.

    Early on, I had a protagonist decide he’s a musician (so music became the passion that supported the theme). Later, two very minor characters designed the colours and atmosphere of their own house, which affected their son, a major supporting character to the protagonist, and still later, this same supporting character defined his attitude toward the protagonist through a character arc that led to a better, more complete ending I could have never drafted on my own.

    A friend of mine had two very minor characters waltz in and demand bigger roles. Their unique (and in the one case eccentric) personalities, magnetism, backstory, and purpose greatly enhanced the story and strengthened relationships with the major characters. She was quite worried about this surprising–and forceful–push for the change. But the characters played nice with the story arc and themes (though she gave them a map), and they fit in perfectly. The results are spectacular.

    Thanks for the great post!

  14. Tiffany Smith says

    Oh COME ON! I want to. I want to have characters that come alive… but they never do. I probably am not giving them enough attention – I craft the characters for the story mostly… maybe it’s because I write fanfiction. I’ve already decided that’s changing soon, but I’m terrified of trying to write something of my own with so little practice in these important areas. (Maybe that’s my current arc? Learning to overcome my fear and do it anyway?)

    Oh well… hopefully my current fanfic project will expand my skills… maybe writing a character that’s based on me most of the time will help. Or maybe she’ll never come alive because she’s already alive (she’s too similar to myself)?

    Forgive my rambling. It’s my idea-crafting method. (And it doesn’t work if I’m talking to myself or writing on a blank page!)

Trackbacks

  1. […] Are You Being Too Much of a Control Freak About Your Characters? Oh my god, those pesky characters, going their own way, acting like they make the rules! You have to get them under control – or do you? Peter J Story wants you to give them some freedom. […]

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