When Characters Get Even

Let’s face it, writers of fiction have a bit of a sadistic streak. To tell a good story, we torture our characters from the get-go. We give them tough histories and make life as hard as possible for them. We create them with personality quirks that keep them from smoothly sailing through life. We throw obstacle after obstacle in their paths as we go along, making sure they never have it easy.

If life came easy for our characters, we wouldn’t have a very exciting story, after all.

Something happens along the story road, however, that often turns the tables. We’re into the heads of our characters, and they just come alive for us. It gets exciting, as we write our way through their days and nights. They throw cool little twists and turns at us, and the “ah-ha” moments come fast and furious. Our efforts to write them into corners suddenly make us realize that we, the writers, are the ones in the corner and now we have to write our way out of it.

In our efforts to make the puzzles hard for our protagonists to solve, we set up a puzzle for ourselves that is missing pieces. Our characters have taken us on side paths that we weren’t expecting. This is great because it means we have written characters with true personalities–characters who are real and believable.

It also means that our characters have managed to do to us what we were trying to do to them.

This is the sort of thing that more often happens to writers who just sit down and pound away at the keyboard without carefully planning out the story ahead of time: the “Pantsers” (the writers who fly by the seats of their pants). For those brilliant minds who carefully outline and know exactly how the story is going to turn out, and just what adventures, clues, and red herrings they are going to include before they start, the sailing is much smoother. Planners have better control to start with, and when their characters go rogue and take the reins, it’s easier for them to steer them back in and point them back toward the next well-thought-out plot point. Of course, a truly impertinent character can derail even the most carefully mapped out storyline. More than one planner has thrown an entire outline away in midstream, as they were forced to go with the flow. It’s the pantsers who most often get sideswiped by disrespectful protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters who think they know better than their creator.

The thing is–they often do know better than their creator, and those quirks and hijackings make for an exciting story. The writer just has to work a little harder, trying to find the missing puzzle pieces, and reassembling the picture. Occasionally, the picture has a few pieces that don’t fit without a lot of judicious trimming and a sledgehammer or two.

I am, by nature, a pantser, though I’ve been known to create rough outlines and map out key plot points now and again. Most often, if I try to plan, I do get derailed somewhere along the line. In the current manuscript, however, I didn’t plan at all. I sat down at the keyboard and just started typing, letting the story tell me where it wanted to go. Along the way, I’ve created complications that have made things appear to be close to impossible for my characters. Of course, that means that, for the characters to get out of their predicament, I have to write them out of it.

I know the puzzle pieces are all there, somewhere. I’ve taken notes along the way (thank the powers that be for Scrivener) to try to help me eventually find the track I’ve gotten off of (if, that is, I was ever on it to start with). I think I have a good story here because the jigsaw pieces that have fit together so far are giving me glimpses of what may turn out to be an intriguing tale.

What that final picture is going to reveal once all the pieces are together, no one knows.

Especially not me.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. judyalter says:

    I’ve always heard advice to beginning writers to listen to your characters, and they’ll tell you what’s going to happen. I think when they do, it’s a sign, as you say, that we’ve written lively, interesting characters,


    1. And some of them are smarter than we are! Thanks For stopping by, Judy.


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