In 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?
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:
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!)
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 on