Writers often define themselves as plotters or pantsers.
- Plotters prefer to plot out their stories — beginning, middle, end — scene by scene. We know what’s going to happen to our imaginary characters in our detailed imaginary worlds.
- Pantsers advocate a write-by-the-seat-of-their-pants approach to stories, following the lead of their imaginary characters or their muses, writing a middle scene or two, then jumping to the end — back and forth where the inspiration is sparking.
I prefer to plot my novels, to have a firm grasp of both my story’s flow –beginning, middle, end — as well as knowing who my main characters are and why they act they way they do. After all, I’m in charge of the story, right?
For all my plotting aspirations, I’ve learned my characters have minds of their own. More than once, I’ve sat down to write a scene and been surprised by something my hero or heroine have said or done.
- In my debut novel, Wish You Were Here, I was writing a scene where my hero, Daniel, comes back to find out what the heroine, Allison, meant when she sent him a postcard with a cryptic “Wish you were here” message. When she invites him into her apartment . . . it’s filled with packing boxes because she’s moving.
I had no idea that was going to happen until Daniel walked through the door into Allison’s living room. But I kept typing, and it all made perfect sense.
- In Catch a Falling Star, my characters suprised me over and over again. I didn’t know my hero, Griffin, had a tattoo until his adopted brother “announced” it as I wrote the rough draft of the story. In another scene, my heroine, Kendall, slaps another character. When that happened, I actually stopped typing, sat back in my chair, and said, “I can’t believe you just did that!”
But I left the scene in the novel because it fit who Kendall was and how she would react to what happened to her.
- In my most recent release, Somebody Like You, my characters seemed determined to take control of the story. I had fun messaging my mentor saying, “Guess what happened now?!” There were a couple of scenes that challenged me as a writer. Even though they rang true to the story, to the characters, I wondered if my editor at Howard Books would veto some of them. Only one was changed — shortened — but everything else remained as the characters planned it . . . I mean, as I wrote it.
I spend a lot of time getting to know my imaginary characters before I write a single word of a manuscript. But I have to admit that their habit of interrpting me and telling me how they think the story should go or saying, “I bet you didn’t expect this!” makes them all the more real. They’re not misbehaving . . . not really. They’re pushing back the boundaries of my plot — and often pushing me to be a better writer.
I love those moments when characters truly do take on a life of their own. In one of my unpublished manuscripts, I didn’t find out until the end of the book that one brother was acting unbecomingly toward a girl just so his brother would take up her cause and marry her. I wrote 70,000+ words thinking he was a scoundrel and it turned out he really cared for his brother and wanted him to remarry after the tragic loss of his wife two years before.
Wow, Ginger — how fun is that? Isn’t it amazing how our characters surprise us? Great plot twist, by the way!
Andrea Cox says
Beth, you had me chuckling through this one… because I know how right you are! This happens to me all the time, and my mom can’t believe it. Well, it happened to her a couple weeks ago. Yes, I enjoyed that moment. :)
Sometimes it’s not what surprises me, but what the characters insist on. Like in this one story I wrote, this certain character had to die. I tried rewriting it many different ways, to keep him alive, but each time he met his demise. It was a very sacrificial death, and because of his sacrifice, another key character found new life and took huge strides in moving forward and growing. I hated killing off that character, but he knew it was coming and gently told me so over and over again. Oh, the patience my characters (and God) have with me! That scene makes me cry every single time, and I’m pretty sure it always will. I’m sure I’ll cry buckets when I convert it from a screenplay into a manuscript.
Hope all is well with you, my friend. No more b&e’s, I suppose? Hee hee.
Blessings, hugs, and happy writing!
Beth Vogt says
Andrea: Now that’s pretty amazing, your character telling you that it’s okay, go ahead and kill him. Of course, you’re so tenderhearted … But we have to do the best thing for the story and that’s often the hardest thing, and the cruelest thing. Our fiction has to reflect real life and our hearts are often broken, aren’t they? And that’s when we are most open to God’s healing and grace.
Andrea Cox says
Beth, your words are sweet honey for me today. So poetic. Sometimes it’s hard for me to be that open and vulnerable when I write because I’ve been hurt so much in the past. But there’s a sweet freedom in giving it your all, and I try to remember that when I’m tugging against where I need to go to let the story be the best it can be. Thanks always for your encouragement.
You are more than welcome, Andrea. I appreciate you and your kind heart.
Lisa Jordan says
I think when characters take over the story, we can get to the heart of what we want to say because we’re no longer playing it safe. I was shocked to learn my hero Ian had a sister in prison. Now I’m writing his sister’s story. :)
Excellent point, Lisa: the story is always better when our characters (we) stop playing it safe.
Laurie Tomlinson says
Love this! I’m glad I’m not the only one with miscreant characters :)
Sounds like it’s a fairly common occurrence for writers … and also a good thing! ;o)