Characters - are they real or am I insane?

Discussion in 'General Writing Discussion' started by MemoryTale, Nov 21, 2011.

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    MemoryTale

    MemoryTale Future ruler of the world

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    So I was at a writing group the other day, and we were discussing our problems with writing. I decided to bemoan the fact that my characters very rarely want to do as they're told. They're constantly getting together with the wrong people, surviving to the end when they were supposed to be killed off halfway through, and in one case going so far as to hijack the role of main hero. These days it feels less like writing a book than being a DM. I just set the scene, let the buggers loose on it and see what happens.

    Then everyone looked at me like I'd just started singing about bananas while dancing the flamenco on the coffee table.

    Is it just me this happens to? Does anyone else have trouble controlling these entities that are supposed to obey our every whim? If so, how exactly does one train a character to actually be a villain when all he really seems to want to do is amble through life and get with that hot policewoman he met the other day?
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    HoopyFrood

    HoopyFrood Iago with a Blackberry

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    My characters always seem to run wild and constantly surprise me with the things they do.

    I tend to write scripts more these days and I found my secondary characters would start to become more interesting than the main (which can't be a good thing for a film...) Someone who was only meant to be in one scene to set the main character off on his storyline, he eventually ended up staying for the entire plot.

    There have been a handful of plots I've actually seen to the end, and in my two main ones that were the most complete, the main character both had a male companion type. These two made me laugh more, had the better lines and tended to more fluid sexuality (not that the scripts touched on this, I just got the feeling and it's how they developed). I loved writing for them.

    I tend to be the same with storylines. They can end up going whether they want and I'll often be surprised at the paths they take.
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    Overread

    Overread Direwolf of the chrons

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    I think its a mark of a more advanced level of writing, if a more difficult one, when one creates a world and characters and then sets them running and finds out where they lead. It produces a world which can be instantly more believable to the reader because the characters choices can be seen and more easily shown to the reader.
    This is as opposed to a story where the writer creates characters and a world, but who is constantly forcing things down a set path because suddenly characters are making choices that don't fit their persona or manner and events are happening which feel forced. This always gives a jolt to the reader when its noticed because it breaks the immersion within the story. Of course at times all characters might need a nudge here and there to get to where they are supposed to be (and on time as well), but these need to be subtle and used sparingly.
    The real key is to make sure that when the characters are made and presented to the reader, that they are done so that they will more likely follow the path you want later on.

    Like all things this will, of course, vary between writers and some will hold a very personal attachment to their characters, whilst others will view them as little more than pawns on the chessboard; so its not wonder that some will not understand the other sides viewpoint full. Asides which its not mature for an adult to admit to imaginary friends (at least until you've a good few awards, sales and some clout behind your name - then you can say what you like and its put down to good old eccentricity ;) )
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    HareBrain

    HareBrain Lagomorphing Staff Member

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    If you're writing realistic characters, they will probably come more from your subconscious than your conscious mind (unless, perhaps, you know them very well before you start). Your plotting, however, will likely be the reverse. Hence characters who don't want to follow the plot. Don't fight them -- it doesn't work.
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    Boneman

    Boneman Active Member

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    Can you blame them? You created them, of course they want a more interesting job/action/interaction... Happens all the time, mostly for the better - they seem to know much more than I do!
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    chrispenycate

    chrispenycate resident pedantissimo Staff Member

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    Yeah, annoying, isn't it? One of my characters was supposed to be safely quarantined up a mountain in Switzerland, ready to speak to the UN in Geneva (The USA hadn't wanted to risk exposure to interstellar germs in New York, thank you very much) and there he is, coming in to land in Säo Paulo on a false passport. (Well, since he's extrasolar it would have to be a false passport, wouldn't it?)

    It took me ages to work out how he'd got out of the enclosure and bypassed the troops, and the Brazilians wouldn't just send him back, so the story stalled over diplomatic niceties and polite insults until his suitcase full of imported food was almost empty.

    Most embarrassing.
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    hopewrites

    hopewrites Happily Ever Aftering

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    I agree with everyone else so far, that characters will go and do what they are meant to go and do. The way that I get them to follow where I want them to go is to sit them down and find out more about them when I get an inkling they are wanting to deviate from my plot idea.
    This happened several times in my (currently) abandoned novel, first the MC started falling for the wrong guy, then the villain refused to show up and be villainous. After talking maters through with them I found out that I had been forcing things with my MC and she really did want the hero after all but I had to let her have her way about being conflicted over it. The villain hated that I had just typecast him with out bothering to find out anything about him and was put up by his half brother to set me straight.
    I think my hero might be flat in that story because we never talk he just meekly goes where I tell him and lets me torture him mercilessly. And since it stopped making sense why she would choose him in the end I had to stop writing it. (that and my dialog was beyond ridiculous, the style juvenile, and the story lost in the telling)

    So now I sit everyone down when they show up and (like a DM) get them a char-sheet before we move on. That way if they do something 'unexpected' in the story at least I know why and can turn it to my advantage.
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    springs

    springs Juggling life

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    Oh, heck, I've given up with mine, and go with the flow now. One of them wants to have a terribly posh accent and I've tried to talk to him about it - got me a few odd looks in the shop as I recall - but he still has it. I've decided its the sign of a well realised character; you have to look at the positives.
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    Interference

    Interference Destroyer of Words

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    What kind of bananas?
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    Galileo

    Galileo New Member

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    You're not bananas. When I go to bed at night, I always think about my characters and I just let them run free in the world I've created and every single time they choose different paths, other romantic interests, react differently then I thought they would. So, naturally, the next day, I always end up rewriting multiple pages, because I feel the need to make sure that I never write against my characters' true nature. I love them too much to do that to them.
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    Mouse

    Mouse roar

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    Anybody whose characters don't do their own thing, shouldn't be writing.
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    Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

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    You do realize that the two things are not mutually exclusive?

    When I stopped being able to write for years and years, someone I knew asked me how that could possibly happen if you were a writer, and I said, "The characters stopped talking to me."

    His face fell and he said in a hushed voice, "That's terrible."

    And it was.

    Sure I could have written just any slop, but I didn't want to write anything while my characters were so silent, because I had tried and it wasn't any good.

    Where other people fear going insane, I think one of the worst things that can happen to a writer is that they go sane instead, and imaginary people stop talking to them.
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    AnyaKimlin

    AnyaKimlin Active Member

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    Are my characters real - No but I sure as heck wouldn't dare tell them that. They'd beggar off for a few days. One lot tend to go camping (given the particular couple I need stress it involves canvas). Have I ever had control over them - hell no.

    I am currently writing a detective story about Dr. Joseph Cream and DI Timothy Black. My original thought was a gruesome thriller with two serial killers picking off Neo Nazis and killing them in front of churches. (They also had wives, families, were hyper respectable).

    I wrote two paragraphs where they literally came out of the closet as detectives (Joe started off a policeman but resigned at end of first story). They were in the cleaning cupboard of a police station - I am guessing as Joe had his belt off and Tim's shirt was untucked .... it became something along the lines of a cosy mystery with a gay love story.
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    springs

    springs Juggling life

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    Sounds like an excellent read Anya, and a fine example of not knowing what happens next with a character (not to say why you need your final editing after you know what they all get up to.:D)
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    AnyaKimlin

    AnyaKimlin Active Member

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    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEeY4AAIG7g

    This song is from the musical City of Angels it is an interaction between a writer and his character. It perfectly describes my relationship with mine. I swear most of them see me as a necessary evil/irritant because I have fingers and can type their story for them.

    Thanks lol - I don't just edit - I rewrite the draft several times from scratch until i happy with it. They still mutate the story when I am editing. On the final spit and polish of one of my fantasy novels I discovered two of my characters on the 'good' side had known the king was going to be harmed and sat by and watched it happen. Because they stood by around 250 people got killed. That was a huge revelation.
    Last edited: Nov 21, 2011
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Generally speaking (and certainly if we're talking about stories rather than prose-poetry or atmospheric description), that is one of the sagest bits I've come across.

    Teresa: that's also priceless... and very true.

    Yep. I recall many, many years ago, I had been working on a story and had been dealing with one particular scene all morning. The story as a whole was going beautifully, but this one scene was driving me nuts. I knew exactly where I wanted it to go, what I wanted the characters to say and do... and it just kept coming out sounding like a creaky wooden machine; puppets being moved by a zombie. After about the ninth or tenth try, I crumpled up the paper (yep, I was working with a typewriter at the time), growled, began to put my fingers on the keys, and -- clear as day -- one of the characters in the scene in my mind's eye turned to me and, in a very annoyed tone, said: "What the f*** do you think you're doing? Just leave us the hell alone and we'll get it done!"

    At which point, I felt a cold chill run up and down my spine a few times, sat back, took a deep breath, and realized it was time to call the chaps with the white coats and butterfly nets. And then my fingers hit the keys, and I could barely keep up with what was coming out of them.... And yes, it breathed, and lived, and was real.

    Which is a long-winded way of saying that, if anyone who claims to be a writer doesn't understand what it is you're talking about... I don't think I'd touch one of their things with a pair of isotope handling tongs.....
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    Peter Graham

    Peter Graham New Member

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    I haven't read the other replies in this thread but I think this conceit of "my characters won't do as I tell them" (sometimes rendered as "don't blame me, I'm only the author") to be symptomatic of an insufficiently well prepared story idea which the author is (perhaps inevitably) finding it hard to recreate on the page in a credible fashion.

    There might be any number of reasons for this. The author may have lost sight of the bigger picture or may be embracing (rather than killing) the darlings. Or the author has not created the characters which she or he needs to get the job done. This, I suspect, is quite common and certainly happens to me.

    The author then has two choices - start again with the characters so that they do what they are needed to do in a believable and consistent way, or change the story to fit round the characters. I do the latter.

    It's just about brain training yourself.

    Regards,

    Peter
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    AnyaKimlin

    AnyaKimlin Active Member

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    I'm supposed to prepare a story :cool: Crumbs! Knew I was going wrong somewhere. Every writer is different - the important thing is what is produced at the end. Personally I see no point in planning when I could write half the novel in the same time. and it is going to wander off course anyway.(Often I don't even guess the genre right).

    For me writing with co-operative, compliant characters would be DULL! Writing the way I do is exciting it is why I can churn out several thousand words a day, because I want to know what on Earth they are doing next. Spending time with my characters is my sanity, and is even better than reading a book because it's a story I get to be the very first to read.

    I've never had an issue killing any darlings, good characters deserve a great story. So whether that darling is a word, concept or character if it doesn't fit it gets removed. However my characters get a say in it, some refuse to die, but equally others refuse to live. My actions may cause me to cry, scream, laugh, go to bed with lights on or even in the case of NaNo 2010 vomit. (My MC killed in first person the twenty children he had adopted), but they go ahead.

    For me letting my characters/subconscious write the story produces much better stories, deeper plots, quirkier characters. However I am also a dedicated rewriter/restarter and will delete, rewrite and change it as often as I need. Mayhem my first novel was rewritten from scratch about eight times - the first two drafts handwritten. Now it takes three-five to get it right before I edit it.

    My current story was originally set in Denmark about serial killer - it moved to my fake North Yorkshire and became about the rape of a senior police officer's son.

    I can guide them a little when Joe and Tim's dad, Ian started to show some inappropriate chemistry I created, Wilf and gave Ian his own boyfriend.
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    Mark R

    Mark R New Member

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    I've been lurking on these forums for the past few days and every time I've seen your name come up there has been a contribution that is measured, useful, and often very funny.

    And when I read the above I was compelled to register simply so I could write this and applaud you (I would have done this by pm but for the admittedly sensible strictures placed on new members). Telling people what they need to hear rather than what they want to takes courage and insight.

    Bravo!
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    springs

    springs Juggling life

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    You'll find it's kind of a specialism of the Chrons; no shortage of honest and diverse views here:D

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