Sunday, January 9, 2011

Who's In Charge?

You put a character out there and you’re in their power. You’re in trouble if they’re in yours. 
~Ann Beattie

That trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills. 
My characters are galley slaves.
~Vladimir Nabokov

I love the above quote by Vladimir Nabokov. I’m a control freak. I like things organized and ordered and scheduled. Although things rarely work out this way when it comes to anything having to do with my fiction work. I don’t always write my books in order, I always don’t outline (though I'm trying to more), I don’t always have a grand plan (except for knowing the basic storyline), I set word count or page goals that I rarely stick to….so why should I expect my characters to toe the line any better than anything else in my fiction world?

Yet, while reading through my favorite book of author quotes, most of the authors listed agreed with Ann Beattie. They felt their characters should be allowed to roam free, that they just sit back and watch as the characters dictate the story. Only a couple of them were on Nabokov’s side, such as John Cheever who said, “The idea of authors running around helplessly behind their cretinous inventions is contemptible.” (I love that quote) :D

I think for me, it is a little bit of both. My characters have a certain voice, an attitude and personality that is uniquely theirs. When a certain situation arises, there are certain ways that character is going to react, and often it is not the way I planned on it happening. I’ll write a scene with a particular situation in mind, envision my characters acting a certain way, and then start writing only to see the scene playing out completely differently in my head.

Now, sometimes what is coming out works – but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I will reread the scene and think, “Wait a second…Kesi is cute and spunky, but she’s a little unsure of herself. She wouldn’t react that way.” And I have to go back in and change things.

Other times, the way she reacts is EXACTLY how she should, but for some reason or other I need her to react differently. Maybe I want her to step out of her shell and do something unexpected. So again, I go back and change whatever it is that needs changing.

So for me, I think I allow my characters a certain amount of freedom, though I by no means run helplessly behind them. :) They get to take the lead….as long as they are doing it correctly. If they don’t, I go all galley master on them and make them do my bidding. (Mwahahahhahahaaaaa) ;-)

How about you? Are your characters in charge? Or do they obey your every command?


  1. Thank you for a thought-provoking post. I agree with you that characters should have a certain amount of freedom, but they are also a WIP and can't expect their creator to endure the terrible two's endlessly.

  2. LOL! great post. My character have a mind of their own, but every once in a while they behave nicely enough for me to get the job done! :D

  3. Love those quotes!! My characters do tend to run around a bit on their own - especially when I'm not sure where to go next - they always seem to have a plan. Maybe THEY'RE the outliners??? :)

  4. I LOVE this post, Michelle! This right here is why I can't wait to read your debut nonfiction book, Homework Helpers: Essays & Term Papers. You just have a way of explaining things that makes them so fun.

    I think I'm with you on this who's in charge question. My characters tend to go off on tangents and get themselves kicked out of school prematurely. It's a terrible idea for me to let them roam free. But maybe when I'm better at unconscious characterization, I'll be one of those writers who says the characters led her on her merry way.

    I can dream.


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