Let Your Characters Live and Breathe

james-scott-bellIn my collection of writing books is a 1919 title, A Manual of the Art of Fiction, by one Clayton Meeker Hamilton, a professor at Columbia University. It’s a bit academic, but I’ve found some gems in it. Among them is the following. In his chapter on characterization, Hamilton states:

“The careless reader of fiction usually supposes that, since the novelist invents his characters and incidents, he can order them always to suit his own desires: but any honest artist will tell you that his characters often grow intractable and stubbornly refuse at certain points to accept the incidents which he has foreordained for them, and that at other times they take matters into their own hands and run away with the story. Stevenson has recorded this latter experience. He said, apropos of Kidnapped, “In one of my books, and in one only, the characters took the bit in their teeth; all at once, they became detached from the flat paper, they turned their backs on me and walked off bodily; and from that time my task was stenographic––it was they who spoke, it was they who wrote the remainder of the story.”

Has that ever happened to you? I suspect it has. It’s one of the most pleasurable aspects of writing (though a little daunting if you’re a dedicated outliner).

So what should you do when a character starts making a few moves of his own?

Listen

As Madeleine L’Engle once put it, “If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it; the book is usually right.”

Take a breath and just let the turn of events soak in. When writing No Legal Grounds, about the stalking of a lawyer and his family, I had planned all along for the wife to leave the house and go off to stay with her sister. But when I got to that scene she wouldn’t go. Just wouldn’t do it. I tried to make her, but she told me to go pound sand.

So I walked around my writing desk thinking about it. I listened to her reasons. And it turns out she was right for her. She became a stronger character. Of course, I had to change my plans from that point on, which brings me to:

Re-Imagine

Whether you are a plotter or a “pantser,” now is the time to jot some free form notes on this new development. Start with a general document on plot possibilities. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What further trouble can happen to this character?
  • What sorts of things has this character unloosed by her independent actions?
  • How have the other character relationships changed?

And so on. Next, add to your character’s voice journal (this is an exercise I follow and recommend in all my workshops. It’s a stream-of-consciousness document in the character’s own voice). Let the character talk to you about what’s going on, and what she might want to do about it.

Plan and Write the Next Two Scenes

Don’t worry about changing your entire outline just yet. Just do the next two scenes. Write them. The act of writing itself is the most important way to let the characters live and breathe. Get a feel for who they are now by writing out the consequences. Then you’ll be in much better shape to write to the end.

So what about you? Do your characters ever take off on you? How do you handle it? (I’m on the road so may not be able to comment much, but please go ahead with the conversation!)

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Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including, Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him online.

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19 Responses to Let Your Characters Live and Breathe

  1. Lang Leav says:

    The way you write and describe the points is amazing. It will definitely help the aspiring writers.

    Thanks for sharing! 😀

  2. Annie D. says:

    Thank you so much for this website. I’m a very young and inexperienced writer who has never been published (or even written an entire manuscript). It’s so encouraging to be able to get help from experienced writers. I have every one of the thesauruses that have been published so far and would never think of sitting down to write without them.
    About this post, my characters have spoken to me several times, often to flat-out tell me something along the lines of “What are you thinking? I’d never do that!”
    However, several of my family members are very opinionated when it comes to characters I’ve created and the way they think that character should act. If a character doesn’t end up doing what they want that character to do, then they are offended that I didn’t take their suggestion. Should I listen to the character or the family member? If anyone has any advice, please let me know!

    • Annie, I’m the author of 45 books and novellas. I would encourage you to not listen to your family or friends and write the story the way you (or your characters) believe it should be written. That said, be sure you know your characters well. Know their back story and what motivates them. That way you’ll know how they will react when facing a trial or crisis. Don’t let others discourage you, but keep at it and write your stories.

  3. Gina Scott Roberts says:

    Most of my writing is, as mentioned above, mere stenography. My characters tend to have my stubborn streak and a sense of independence I often envy…in other words, they’re bossy as hell and absolutely refuse to allow me to direct their actions beyond simple suggestions.

    So, like a parent, I teach them what they need to know and let them loose to discover their lives. Then sit back and record the ensuing chaos.

    The only time I encounter any real trouble is when they get together and start talking about *me*. Some of them don’t seem to like the things I try to do with them….

  4. This is very common for me. Which is why I rarely have more than a basic plot in mind when I start writing. I have had more organized stories, especially ones with multiple sub-plots but even then the characters often decide things for themselves. I like the quote ‘my task was stenographic––it was they who spoke, it was they who wrote the remainder of the story.’ My scenes often come to me in almost movie-like fashion, I’m just there to watch and record and maybe give direction now and then, but it’s the characters’ show.

    • “My scenes often come to me in almost movie-like fashion, I’m just there to watch and record and maybe give direction now and then…” I’m a little jealous of this. It would be nice for someone to give me a little direction sometimes on how the story should go :).

  5. Talia says:

    Man, I wish my characters would do this more often. Occasionally my characters will take control of the story or tell me that it should go differently, but not usually. One interesting thing though is that sometimes I am able to actually have back-and-forth conversations with my characters. That sounds kind of creepy, actually… Anyway, I have this one character who likes to annoy people; he’s always really mean and sarcastic. I began to suspect he had some deep emotional wound which he had managed to hide from everyone, even from me, and that he acts the way he does to hide it. So I tried to get him to tell me what happened to him but he refused. I like it when characters talk to me, even if they don’t tell me how the story should go. 🙂

  6. Mark Marderosian says:

    Great article. I find my warning sign for directing my “actors” into a scene they don’t feel is authentic is their dialogue will become forced and not flow.
    In the novel I’m currently working on, I wrote out an entire scene with the main characters at a ball game. Their banter back and forth was stilted and felt forced. I wasn’t sure why. Upon taking a break, I soon realized that within the context of the story they wouldn’t be out in the day time where they could be seen together. They knew better than I that the scene was not authentic to their lives at that moment so what they were saying didn’t flow. I re-staged the scene at night and the two characters felt their motivation within the scene better.

    • It’s great that you’ve got a feel for when this is happening, Mark. That’s great intuition that will serve you well as you’re able to recognize when these moments are coming so you’ll know how to respond.

  7. Mel Parish says:

    Once I start writing the characters take over. I’ve learned that if I get stuck it’s usually because I’m trying to push the characters in a direction they don’t want to go or I’m trying to resist the direction they are insisting on going in and that the only way to make progress is to give in to them. They usually turn out to be right. As a mystery writer, I feel that if your characters can surprise you when you are writing then they will probably surprise the reader too.

  8. I’m close to finishing the first draft of my WIP, and about a third of the way in, my ungrateful characters staged an uprising, and even though they wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for me, their loving and most benevolent creator, they’ve been leading the way ever since. It was terribly disconcerting at first, but I’ve gotten used to it. It’s kinda fun being surprised by my own writing…

  9. Kathy Gibson says:

    Yes, the first time this happened to me I was so surprised. I wrote a scene for a main character. The next morning, on my way to work, she spoke to me. She made it clear under no circumstance would she behave the way I wrote. She had me in tears. The change I made just deepened her character, her moral strength, her love for her brother-in-law, my great-grandfather. She is my great aunt and I knew her when I was a child. So my characters, all ancestors, tell me things quite often. I love their participation in our family story.

  10. Kimberly says:

    I’m so happy to hear you talk about this communication with the character in the stream of consciousness manner. It happens! There is a psychic pull to stop what I’m doing or thinking to let my hand move on the paper and voila, new information is disseminated. This spurs me on when I need inspiration and has awoken me at night to get something out without my normal consciousness getting in the way. I have no idea what I wrote until morning. It’s fun and oh so helpful to my understanding and writing.

  11. This is a great post on adaptability. I’ve definitely been surprised by the actions of characters before and when one starts to self-direct, something magical afoot. I think you have to let it happen to see where it takes you because at that point, you’re a passenger and creativity (or the muse, if one prefers) is driving.

    One thing that hasn’t happened to me is my characters don’t speak to me specifically. I always find it fascinating where I hear other writers talk about this phenomena. Thanks for the food for thought, Jim!

  12. This is a fascinating post because while I hear about characters who do this, mine never have. Could be that I’m too structured in my plotting. Regardless, this sounds like great advice for how to deal with those characters who refuse to go with the author’s flow :).

  13. My characters do that all the time. In fact they woke me up in the middle of the night this morning, insisting I get up and finish the escape scene I’d started. It seems they didn’t like being in limbo and wanted to make their escape.

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