When Characters Take Off On Their Own

Many fiction writers comment that one or more of their characters “have a mind of their own.” Some go as far as to say that they don’t know what their characters will do or how their books will end until they get there. I never truly understood this phenomenon… until it happened to me.

The situation and plot of my novel came to me before the specific characters who would appear in it did. I knew the protagonist would be framed for murder and on the run, and I knew the person who tracked him down would be a private investigator posing as a reporter, but I didn’t really know who these people were. When I first began to put the plot of my novel together, the characters were little more than placeholders — little globs of clay that I slowly molded into characters over time. Where would a depressed character hide where people would leave him alone? A hole in the wall bar, of course! Great, let’s make him an alcoholic, and his confidant, a bartender. Okay! And this reporter is going to be a real firecracker, so let’s give her red hair! And let’s give the protagonist’s late wife red hair too, and hint that the two ladies resemble one another. Awesome!

In the first few chapters of my book, the dialog is weak and the character motivations are almost non-existent. They’re saying and doing what they need to do to move the story forward. As I continued to write the story, I began to learn my characters better. They developed personalities. In the first chapter I couldn’t say what Skip would or wouldn’t do, but by chapter ten I had a good idea, and by chapter twenty, he was telling me.

I didn’t know my characters as well as I do now when I first sat down to plot my novel. As they’ve developed from names on a page to actual characters, I know more about them. I know their backstories. I know what motivates them. In that sense, I’m now listening to the characters they’ve developed into instead of simply moving around those undeveloped blobs of clay I began with.

Because of all this, some of the things I planned to happen simply no longer make sense. In that way, I am listening to my characters.

I can’t wait to see where they finally take me! I’m getting closer to the end!

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