Let Your Characters Live Their Own Lives

Hey Folks,

First, an excerpt from another professional writer’s post:

“…writers should strive to make each plot point arise organically from character.” Later in the same post, the writer talks about a character living an “unauthentic” life. I don’t wonder.

As I write this, I’ve seen too many Nationwide Insurance commercials lately. My first thought as I read the excerpt above was “Tiny baby shoes. So close.” (grin)

If only the blogger had written “writers should ALLOW each plot point to arise organically from character.” Because then it would be truly organic. To the characters. In their story.

But she didn’t. And frankly, that whole “strive to make” thing causes me to shudder. Really. Physically.

You can write (and all writers do) in one of two ways:

1. You can be that almighty Author on High, controlling every little aspect of what your characters say and do, or

2. You can get over yourself, roll off the parapet into the trenches of the story and run through it with your characters.

The second way is a lot more fun. It’s also writing into the dark.

The thing is, it isn’t your story.

Let your characters tell the story. After all, they’re the ones who are living it.

I don’t even see myself as a storyteller. I’m only the recorder whom the characters have invited along to record their story.

I run through the story with them, just trying to keep up. I write down what they say and do, and every thousand words or so the characters take pity on me (I’m an old guy so it’s difficult for me to keep up) and we all take a break.

Just before we’re ready to race back into the story, I cycle back through the previous thousand words to let the characters add anything I missed as we were racing along. Then we’re off and running into the next scene, and the next, and the next.

And seriously, after “follow Heinlein’s Rules” and “trust your subconscious,” the best advice I ever got from anyone is “when you get stuck (or the story ‘stops’), Just Write the Next Sentence.”

All writers are different, but this has worked for me through 37 novels (at this writing) and counting.

A very long time ago I was a control freak. I “strived to make” everyone and everything in my life “fit” like I wanted them to. That included “my” fictional stories (before I found the light), pets, friends and even my wife. Honestly, I’m amazed she kept me around.

I remain a very strong-willed individual, but I direct most (I hope “all”) of that inward now, to my own self-discipline, sense of morality, etc. And that’s where it belongs. After all, what right do I have to tell anyone else what to do or how to do it?

(Disclaimer: Yes, of course you must levy control over your young children, but that should be to safeguard them, not to bend them to your will.)

So the answer to “What right do I have” is None. No right at all. No right and no privelege. I do the actual typing, but my characters’ stories are THEIR stories.

I can (and should, and do) control myself, my actions and reactions. For example, I control how I feel about other people, how I treat them, etc. But THEY control how they feel about me and everything else in their life.

What does this have to do with writing?

In my writing life, I am strictly in charge of when and how much I write and even which characters I write about and which stories I choose to tell.

But once I’ve selected which story to tell, the CHARACTERS are in charge of the story. The CHARACTERS are in charge of their actions and reactions. The CHARACTERS are in charge of their own self-discipline and sense of morality or lack thereof.

When I’m very lucky, they sometimes act “out of character,” meaning they do or say something I wasn’t expecting. Do I force them back onto the straight and narrow? No. I trust the process, leave it alone, and let them tell their own story. And I’ve literally never been sorry.

I’m glad I’m no longer a control freak. When you assume control over another entity, you also assume responsibility. I have enough to do just being responsible for myself.

It isn’t my place to “strive to make” plot points arise from my characters. And if I did, those plot points wouldn’t be “organic,” now would they?

Plot points come from and are a component part of Story. And Story comes from the characters. To repeat myself, the characters are the ones who are LIVING the story. Let them tell it to you.

But again, you’re in charge of the keyboard. You can force events and plot points and character actions and reactions in “your” stories if you want to. That’s your right as a writer.

You can take responsibility for every plot point, every twist and turn, and every word of dialogue. You can take responsibility for every character, along with his or her sense of morality, his or her actions and reactions.

You can force-feed the reader the whole thing according to how you believe the characters “should” be living and what they “should” or “should not” do or say.

But then it won’t be your characters’ authentic story, will it? It will be YOUR story. And the characters will be trudging along, grudgingly, under your whip. And it will show.

When you force your characters into a particular mold, that part of their life will be an extension of YOUR story, not theirs. And they’ll resent you for it.

And so will your readers.

‘Til next time, happy writing.


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2 thoughts on “Let Your Characters Live Their Own Lives”

  1. You know what just occurred to me as I read this post? You totally nailed the difference between what I see as character-driven stories and those that are plot-driven. I abhor the latter because the characters aren’t telling their story. They’re being shoved, manipulated, and forced along by the writer as he/she “strives” to hit pre-planned plot points, and usually characterization is weak. If a writer’s characters are weak, I don’t care how strong their setting or plot or grammar are. I’m done reading.

    • Bingo. (grin) Obviously I agree. And besides, all good fiction is character-driven. For just one example, even in the most scientifically factual SF novels, the story isn’t about the science. It’s about the problems (or boons) caused by the science and how the characters react to the science.

      And purely by accident, the topic in today’s Daily Journal is all about the choice writers have to make.

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