When Characters Have a Mind of Their Own

It’s Wednesday, and time for the Wickeds and all of you to weigh in. This week, let’s talk about those pesky characters who have an independent streak a mile wide, and won’t do what we want them to do. Wickeds, do any of you have a character who won’t behave?

Jessie: My protagonists generally do not behave as society expects but they do seem to do things I approve of. After all, society expects citizens to call the police when a murder occurs! That being said, my sleuth Beryl Helliwell, in the Beryl and Edwina Mysteries, is especially devoted to following her own path in life. From racing cars to piloting planes to her many amorous dalliances she is absolutely determined to do just as she pleases. She is also inclined to encourage others to do the same which is probably the most frowned upon thing she could possibly do!

Sherry: Jessie, Beryl is one of my all time favorite protagonists and with Edwina one of my favorite dynamic duos. I love the contrast between them and how they come together.  Sarah surprised me in my upcoming release, Let’s Fake a Deal.  Sarah has been in plenty of trouble over the course of the first six books, but in Let’s Fake a Deal I’m up that a notch or two. Her relentless pursuit of justice takes a dark twist that she has to deal with. When I set out writing the book I didn’t see what happened coming or the resulting impact on Sarah’s life. 

Barb: When authors says their characters have minds of their own and won’t do what their author tells them, I always say, “I have enough people in my life who don’t do what I think they should. One of the benefits of creating these people and their world is that they have to do what I say. If they won’t, I fire them and get a character who will.” And that is really kind of true. People reveal their character by their actions. In my first drafts I’m always learning new things about the characters. If something they do is out of character, I go back and change the character, not the action.

Liz: It always makes me laugh when you say that, Barb. For me, it’s more about a character insisting they have more to say or do than I initially thought. For instance, in my Pawsitively Organic Mysteries, my main character Stan’s mother appeared in book one as an annoying reminder that nothing in Stan’s life is going the way it’s supposed to. I thought that would be the end of her, given that she and Stan didn’t get along anyway. Imagine my surprise when she showed up in Frog Ledge and got romantically involved with the mayor, and eventually moved in! It turned out to be a wonderful way to evolve Stan’s character arc, so I let her stay.

Jessie: I love the way you included Stan’s mum in your books, Liz! I think it added a lot to the series! I am often surprised by my characters! I don’t know that I expect to know anything more about my characters going into a relationship with them than I do of flesh and blood people. I feel like as I write about them they are whispering in my ear and telling me about themselves. I am never quite sure where it all comes from but it doesn’t feel like I am crafting them particularly. It is more like they are showing up for a nice long visit and we are getting to know each other. Such fun!

Edith: One of the very cool things about this blog is learning these behind-the-scenes bits about each others’ books. Last week, while I was working on my first draft, I was completely surprised by something that isn’t exactly a case of a character misbehaving. Instead Aunt Tilly let me know who exactly her ward Frannie (alas, the victim) was. Going in, I didn’t know, and midwife Rose didn’t either. We were both gobsmacked! For me, being surprised by the words flowing off my fingertips is part of the delight of writing.

Julie: Edith, your retreat sounds like a perfect place for the muses to visit! While I’d like to think I can get my characters to behave, and as a plotter you’d think I had control of the situation, I find that an action or motivation throws pebbles on my path that often lead to different routes. One example is Portia Asher in my Garden Squad series. Portia came into being when my friend Steve asked me to name a character for his mother, which I agreed to do, happily. But then book Portia took over her scenes and she showed up in the second book. And the third. She was not to be ignored, so I didn’t!

Readers, do you like characters with a mind of their own? Fellow writers, do your characters ever derail you?

18 Thoughts

  1. My female lead in my first novel APPREHENSION became Jewish on the page. She’d been Catholic in my notes but started wisecracking in Yiddish as I wrote her. I’m a plotter not a pantser so this was a surprise. The contrasts with boyfriend Kelly’s Catholicism will frame the second book in the series, now in progress.

  2. I wouldn’t say my characters derail me, but they often whisper, “No, it wouldn’t happen like that. Let me tell you.” However, Tom Burns kind of was like Portia. I was only going to use him in one short story and once he was there, by golly he was there to stay!

  3. Personally, I think it’s grand when a character does something that isn’t in character or expected. As they say, shake up the world to make it interesting because everything expected can get boring. 🙂
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  4. I can tell when a writer has a plot in mind and force the characters to get to the finish line. However, it sounds like each of you is more open to finding ways to make your characters fit the plot and your plot fit the stories. And I can tell in your books.

  5. It’s always fascinating to me when an author says the character took over – or in the case of Barb how she made them behave or made them leave. So much goes on behind the scenes in the writing that as a reader I sometimes take for granted. Love to hear this inside stuff 😉 !

  6. Characters do take over from time to time. I’ve found it’s best to let them have their heads. I once had a villain confess to me. All well and good – I’d framed an innocent person!

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