Letting your characters take control

Reading a biography of author Monica Dickens recently, I was interested to see her quoted as comenting with regard to her writing process: ‘the best characters just write themselves’.

‘Writes itself’. That’s a phrase we see a lot – or variations of it. It broadly refers to, I think, a relative ease in producing writing at the drafting stage (with a nod to the fact that the slog of re-writing and editing are yet to come). Within that, though, the phrase can have different, nuanced, meanings.

In the case of fictional characters, sometimes you can visualize them, see and hear them in action – even, with the writer’s ‘god’s eye’ perspective, overhear what they are thinking. His eyes are hazel. He is from Ecuador – no particular reason, he simply is. He hates eggs – but of course. Indeed, Jorge would never contemplate eating eggs; he even pretends to be allergic to them. He adores pasta though, is a self-taught cook, if rather messy. Enjoys playing smooth jazz, too, though he never really mastered the saxophone – not with that impatient temperament of his. These are simply facts. And though the reader will never find this out, he hates anyone knowing, but Jorge didn’t lose his virginity until he was 25.

When characters ‘appear’ like this, it makes it (relatively) easy to decide what a character would do, how they would respond, at certain points in a plot. This will be useful in writing a character-driven story but, of course, is potentially inconvenient in one that is more plot-driven.

Which character do such possessions belong to?

Amongst the multifarious pieces of advice that exists on creative writing, a lot of people will advocate getting to know your characters in full, even ‘interviewing’ them in detail. Masterclass, for example, has a comprehensive list of 45 questions to ask your characters, linked here, covering appearance, back story, personality, interests, personal belongings, thoughts and emotions. You may not, of course, include all of these details in the text; however, the idea is that a fully fleshed out character will help your characters to appear real to the reader, human flaws, warts, quirks, and all.

Inevitably, because there is no single way to write, not everyone agrees with this approach. Novelist Neil Griffiths, for one. A few years ago, Griffiths wrote an article, I’m an author in search of my characters, in which he described writing characters (or ‘novel-inhabiting people’, as he describes them) ‘from the outside in’. As with people in real-life, we can observe and draw conclusions from expressions, gestures, actions, words, but we cannot access the true ‘quality of their souls’ – their inner selves, thoughts, motives, feelings… ‘People aren’t predictable; they are mostly unknowable,’ Griffiths reminds us, suggesting that to learn every aspect of a character is to exert too much control over them as a writer –  as opposed to letting the characters take over.  

Here is author Anna Burns, interviewed about her Booker-prize winning novel Milkman and her writing own process:
My characters tell me who they are – and what it is they want me to do. I’m allowed to enthusiastically second-guess, they don’t mind that, which is nice of them.” But “When it comes to the end, to wrap up time, I realise once again that my characters have ignored all my clever guesswork.’

It’s not explicitly stated, but this suggests that Burns, rather than pre-deciding every trait and biographical detail of her characters in advance, allows them to emerge and, as Griffiths describes it, to take control during the composition process.

This gives me a lot to think about. I now realise in the above paragraph I phrased it, unconsciously, as ‘decide what a character would do’ – as in I, the writer will decide, based on all that I know about ‘my’ character, down to the last detail. When characters have not presented themselves fully formed, this has irked me in the past. To remedy it, I have gone down the ‘biography’ route, detailing them both inside and out, usually before pen has been put to paper (or the first key struck).

This isn’t necessarily ‘wrong’. As author Damyanti Biswas put it: ‘When you are a pantser [i.e. a writer who writers without an outline or clear advance plan], it is a lot of back and forth, a lot of writing that may need to be deleted, directions that won’t work, characters that don’t behave the way you think they should, and situations that emerge as thunderbolts in your fingers as you type.’  

If you are an ‘outliner’ rather than a ‘pantser’, the relaxed ‘let’s see where it takes me’ approach may not work for you. I’ve very much been an ‘outliner’ or planner myself. I am, I admit, a bit of a control freak. in my day job, it’s pretty much an occupational hazard.

However, I have been looking to experiment, looking at ways to write more spontaneously. Next time, I will try relinquishing control, bear in mind that the most realistic factor of all is that we can never really ‘know’ anyone. Try allowing the characters space and time to assert themselves until they are ready to take over.

Images thanks
Main image  by b0red from Pixabay 
Smaller image Mink Mingle on Unsplash



13 thoughts on “Letting your characters take control

  1. Agreed with Griffin on the matter… by the way Nabokov in his book of interviews “Strong Opinions” said the same kind of thing – the author is the God or the King, and the character can’t take over or decide which way to turn ‘the story’ in the novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t seen that before, great reference and tip, thank you. Yes. it seems it’s about balance, giving characters room to develop and not over controlling, but not letting them decide everything. Guess I need to be a monarch but not play God in that scenario.

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  2. People (authors) are different, so whatever works… but I think our characters shouldn’t rule over us, The Creators of the Story 😉📚😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The ending of Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, where science fiction writer Kilgore Trout meets his ‘maker’, stands out for me. Trout asked to be made young again – I wonder what we’d ask our creators if we found out we were in a novel and met up with them.

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      1. Great one ☝️ … idk, but my guess, at least 50%, would ask for immortality;))

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  3. Character’s writing themselves… I experienced worse. Character’s who overruled my idea and the planned story I had set out to write. I’m with Anna Burns in this matter. (no, not in the same writers league, she is way above me).

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    1. I like the image this conjures up of having arguments with the characters; that has to be a good sign! You’ve encouraged me to be more experimental.
      In Milkman, Burns’s move to not give the characters names is extraordinarily bold, and an extraordinary evidence of craft as well as challenge to the reader.

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  4. One of my favourite characters walked into my first novel uninvited and I had to write him his own novel next.

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    1. I love that! When you know there’s much more left in a ‘side character’. I also enjoy reading books that are not series or sequels, but wherein writers have a loose cast of recurring characters, Barbara Trapido, say, Alison Lurie or Amanda Craig.

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  5. I have found it much easier–and more organic–to let characters write themselves. Sure, I throw problems at them but they use their backgrounds and personal tools to solve them. Like kids do.

    Thought-provoking article.

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    1. Good description – going organic! I like the image of throwing problems at them, too. This seems an extension of Griffiths’s point – people are unpredictable, life too.

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  6. I pants, and I focus on the plot more than on the character. In order to better myself and my writing, I have been trying to give the characters more of a stage. But then I ask what level of detail is needed, what traits should be included, etc. I like your conclusion – we can never know everything about another person (unless you are writing from 1st person perspective).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As someone who has been an outliner / plotter, I think that can get in the way. There is a temptation to include too much detail in the final text , whereas even if you have detailed knowledge of your characters, it doesn’t have to go into the final work. I am going to try ‘meeting’ a character for the first time whilst writing, at least as a draft or exercise, see where that goes.

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