Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Character and Control

I've kind of let this blog go, because of one reason--I'm too busy to breathe. Sometimes you have to sit down and decide what to let go in your life in order to stay sane. Blogging takes time and mental energy, and I'd rather spend both on writing books. Therefore, not much blogging.

That said, writing related issues occasionally occur to me, and this venue is a great place to muse on them.

Today, I was thinking about writers letting characters take control, and some comments I've come across lately from people who severely disagree with this method.

I like to say I let my characters tell the story. And they do. I put them in motion on the page and see what they do. I watch, and I write down what I see.

I saw a tweet the other day that said basically that an author who lets his / her characters tell the story is an idiot. A fool, not really a writer. Saw the same kind of comment in a book I'm reading on plotting.

Writers are ALWAYS in control of their characters, right? 

Not quite. When I say my characters have control, tell me the story, or take over I do NOT mean that they meander about talking about the reproductive cycles of cabbages while the bank they're standing in is being robbed (unless I'm going for zany humor).

But my characters then don't forget all about the trauma of the robbery and decide to take a European tour where they meet some aliens and journey with them back to a moon of Jupiter.

See what I mean? Now, we could probably come up with a plot where that all works... but I'm being a bit silly to make a point.

I put my character in a situation (say, a bank being robbed while my hero is there on his lunch hour). This bank robbery will be very important to the story (maybe he's a private detective, maybe he realizes one of the robbers is his best friend's son, maybe he's undercover for the CIA). 

But then I let my character go. I sit back and watch him decide what to do while the bank's being robbed. Be a hero and tackle the guy with the biggest gun? Does he covertly make a phone call? Does he go all Burn Notice and take down the robbers with duct tape and canned air? What kind of a person is he--what would he do? (as opposed to the eight-year-old girl, or the eighty-year-old woman in the electric scooter.)

My character's actions should be logical and make sense for him: X happens, he reacts by doing Y, causing Z, which causes A, then B, and so on. I watch, I type.

But I've not decided beforehand what Y, Z, A, B, and C are and outlined them. I can't think that way. I can sit here and project out a very, very rough sketch of a story line, to a point, but I can't really know how the story is going to flow until I write it. 

What was in my rough notes as C turns out to be W when I start writing. W comes to me out of nowhere, and is a much better, more entertaining, and more logical course than C.

But I will never know that until I start writing and let the characters go. The act of moving my fingers on the keyboard seems to trigger the creativity in my brain.

That's what I mean by writing by the seat of my pants and having my characters in control. They do, I watch.

Possibly, what's going on inside my head is me seeing the situation and problem-solving it via my character as I write dialog, stage direction, description, inner monologue. I'm good at problem-solving (figuring something out as it's thrust in front of me). I suck at strategy (planning in advance). 

When I release my inhibitions and let the characters take over, they tell me things about themselves I never knew, and do things I didn't realize they were capable of.

Now, if they do decide to hop a plane to Paris and then fly off into space with aliens, when I revise the story I can see whether that incident logically flowed with the story line (maybe I'm writing scifi; or the character is using the aliens as a thought exercise with his therapist), or whether it was a strange and unnecessary digression (but hey, it worked for Monty Python's Life of Brian).

Letting my characters tell me the story does not mean I let them rampage willy-nilly through the book with a mad fixation on aliens and cabbage. But watching what they do does make my stories richer and deeper than they'd be if I slavishly followed an outline I'd beaten to death beforehand because I thought this was the "right" way to write a novel.

It's just the way that works for me. If I had a different brain, maybe I could only write a story after I'd meticulously planned every plot detail. If you're much better at planning in advance than I am, go for it.

Whatever works FOR YOU is right.

That's my musings for a cloudy Wednesday afternoon. Hoping for some rain soon.


Jennifer Davis said...

Thank you so much for posting this! I am not published yet, but as an aspiring author, I too find that I prefer to let my characters tell me what is happening in the story. I have tried plotting ahead of time, writing an outline, etc., but I feel I get better writing when I listen to my characters. Often what I thought would happen doesn't and something much more interesting does! By the way, I LOVE your books!!

Maureen said...

So right! I do the same with my characters and how the story runs.

Though now I'm captivated at the idea of an alien cabbage bank job...

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

Jennifer: Thank you! And good luck to you. Getting pubbed by a publisher takes dedication and persistence more than anything else.

Maureen: LOL Write it!

Mina Burrows said...

Excellent advice, Jennifer. I am completely enamored by your characters! You have such a gift, truly. For me, if the characters are bleh than why the heck am I reading or writing the book? Wonderful post. Thanks!

Mom in High Heels said...

Ooooh, glad to have you back!!!
This is an interesting post. As an aspiring author, I do outline or my characters might run away (possibly due to bad writing?), but they do tell the story the way they want. I know what's going to happen, but not how they will react. Sometime it's not the way *I* intended, but it works for them. Funny how that works.

Mom in High Heels said...

P.S. Any insight on when the next Lacey book will be out? I'm dying here. No pressure. :)

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

I posted an update that included what's up with Captain Lacey at: Because I'm behind on more than one series. :-)