Letting Characters Take the Wheel

“When characters are really alive, before their author, the latter does nothing but follow them in their action.”

~ Luigi Pirandello

I made one great mistake in the writing of my first novel (and, of course, it was fixable and I learned from it so I suppose it wasn’t that great).

I let my characters take over.  There is a kind of romance to the notion, which is perhaps why it seduced me. There is something appealing in the idea of a character having such vim that they hijack your tale, such solidity that they can tug on your sleeve.

My problem was that I didn’t stop to analyze that tug. I let my characters guide me, pull me along in the wrong direction, without ever stopping to consider why my protagonist felt inclined to change course.

(Side note: even the above language I don’t much like. Talking about a character making a choice is to semantically rob me, the writer, of both my errors and my successes.)

This is the biggest lesson I learned during my first draft: don’t blindly follow your character’s guidance. Stop and consider why they are pulling you off course. My characters were resisting me for a reason. There was a deeper problem, something that needed to be adjusted.

What I wanted, and indeed what the book needed, was tension. My characters were meant to be thrust together and not get along at first. I spent a lot of time setting up this situation and the duality of these two cultures.  But, in my first draft, I did not give them sufficient cause to really dislike each other.  And they’re all fun, interesting people so it made sense that they should all get along fairly quickly. They lacked sufficient motivation to hate each other. What I intended was antipathy, what I ended up with was friendly banter. They were amusing scenes, but the tone was utterly wrong.

I let my characters guide me through scene after scene that would eventually need to be scratched.  Large portions of the novel needed to be written from scratch.  It cost me time, but as I said it was a valuable lesson.

So, my advice to any first time writers is this: don’t ignore your characters if they resist your outline.  There is probably something wrong.  Either the actions you intend are illogical, out of character, or lack motivation.  Maybe the character’s impulse will be an improvement, but maybe not. Decide whether this new direction is actually better for your story, or if you should address the underlying problems.

As the writer, you need to take the helm. You can see the big picture, your character can’t.

unsplash-logoRobert Bye

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