Allowing Characters to Take Control of the Story

I’ve been steadily plugging away at my Camp NaNoWriMo novel for a while, but recently, I’ve encountered something interesting.

My main character, Phoenix, is not who I thought she was. For the past two days I’ve been using a character to bully her, egg her on, and go as far as threatening to hurt someone else while trying to get a reaction out of her. Two days ago I would have said Phoenix doesn’t stand down to bullies and takes them out like the strong independent woman she is. But every time she is backed into a corner with this bully, and I’m poised for a fight, she turns the other cheek and walks away!

It took me three or so attempts before I realized that my character had taken control of the story and was headed in a different direction than I was. This is a hard concept for non-writers (and even some writers) to grasp.

Chiante. You are sitting alone at your computer typing the words. The character is made up. She is fictional and every thought, motive, and action she performs is because of what you wrote. This character is not sentient and she can not write her own story.

To that I say, slow down negative-Nelly. I’m a writer; the boundaries of limits are vast and far away. I personally know that I’ve created a good, fully rounded character when she or he has stopped being a character and has become this living, breathing person with opinions about their own story.

Of course I know that the character is not the one making these decisions, but for me, that moment when I stop thinking as Chiante and start thinking as Phoenix is when my character comes alive. And guess what, Phoenix is not one to lose her temper over bullies. By writing Phoenix as someone who throws a punch every time someone insults her, she would never get anything done and she wouldn’t be Phoenix.

She would be me, pretending to be Phoenix.

Part of the beauty of being a writer is the ability to occupy the minds of all my characters not just as writer, but as the character themselves. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to let go of my writer brain which is always thinking about word choice, story structure, and grammar, and let the motivation, history, and personality of my character take the reins.

I’m not going to lie, I was a bit disappointed by Phoenix’s turn against violence because I’ve written a character very similar to her who would have taken the bully out in seconds. But Phoenix simply is not like that.

The fun part now, once I’ve accepted Phoenix as who she wants to be, is to ask why. Why does she act the way she does? What has happened to her in the past that makes her reserved in this way? But most importantly, what will it take for her to throw that first punch?

These questions and this time of discovery is like investigative writing for me. Everything that I love about English Literature classes—looking at themes and motifs, brainstorming motives, and analyzing the reasons for certain events and twists—comes into play while I’m writing in this way.

This type of writing is atypical for me. But as I’ve been writing and reflecting on my writing process, I’ve discovered that this style has been particularly helpful to me after coming out of a previous NaNoWriMo that I hated, as well as my recent shift to other forms of writing like essays, stories, and children’s lit.

All I can say is letting my characters take the wheel allows me to go along and enjoy the ride even if the destination has changed since I started.

How much free rein do you give your characters?

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Integration

I just finished writing a Psychology exam on which I was asked how I would approach the relationship between being a psychologist and being a Christian. I also just finished participating in a Twitter chat about how the real world meets the writing world. Since this topic of relationship came up twice in the span of a couple hours, I thought it fitting to examine it in the much smaller scale of my own personal relationship to writing, the real world, and my faith as a Christian.

I am a firm believer that my faith is the most important and central feature of my life, and it should permeate into everything I do—including writing. Because of that I used to believe that I could only write strictly Christian fiction. I have since discovered that being a Christian writer doesn’t mean that for me. I am called to write about the things that I find highly interesting (pirates, dragons, magic, and criminals to name a few) through the filter of a faith-based world view. Whether or not I like it, my real life, my faith, and my writing are intricately mixed.

I can’t separate my writing from my faith and I can’t separate my life from my faith. All three of these things are not kept neat and tidy in their own little compartments. They ebb and flow through me mixing and meeting in all kinds of wonderful ways. My real life is a faith life, not just once a week at church or when something bad happens, but everyday, every hour, and every moment of my real life is founded on faith—it has to be. God has given me a gift through my love of stories and storytelling. Without my faith, the gift of writing becomes selfish and loses all meaning. My faith, life, and writing are inseparably linked.

If my life through faith and writing can not be separated, then I want to do everything I can to integrate them as smoothly and effectively as possible. Faith becomes the foundation of my writing. My stories, I hope and pray, portray what that foundation means to me. The integration happens when I actively and passively filter my stories and writing through my Christian worldview keeping in mind the most amazing characteristics of my faith through the sacrifice, redemption, and grace found in Jesus Christ. Passively the integration happens because of the nature of a worldview which unconsciously shapes and influences how I see the world.

The important themes of the Christian faith, like love, sacrifice, grace, and hope become staples in my stories often without me realizing until after I go back to edit because I unconsciously and consciously view the world through these themes. Because I am made in the image of God who is creator of all, I strive also to be a creator and bring glory to Him through my stories. Not only is my faith applied through my made up stories, but all the inspiration I take from my real life is also automatically examined through this lens.

I don’t want to separate who I am into three categories–life, faith, and writing. A separation like that limits how I interpret the world depending on which hat I decide to wear. Do I see this situation as a Christian, as a human, or as a writer? I would rather compound these three hats (and other hats too) into one. I actively put faith as the most important aspect of my life and allow it to influence each and every thing I do.

Integrating these central aspects of my life allows me to create a more complex, nuanced, and frankly, realistic life for my characters and my stories both when I’m writing and when I’m not.

 
Do you integrate multiple aspects of your life? Why or why not?

March Recap, April Update, Future Goals

Whew! What a month it has been!
Poignantly following my last post, I missed last week’s post completely. In that time, some stuff has happened, so let me recap my month of March and look toward the near and distant future!

In March, I started the Micro Fiction Challenge. The challenge was to write 100-word stories for every day of March based on a picture prompt.

I got about two weeks into the month before the habit deteriorated and by the third week, I had given up on it completely with everything else going on. At first it bothered me. I am perfectly capable of writing 100 words of story each day, so why did I have so much trouble with this?

One of the reasons is my own tendency to push things to the last minute. Daily habits are hard for me to establish and hard for me to continue. I was hoping this challenge would help me push against that inclination to procrastination, but I was wrong.

In spite of that, I really liked the basis of a story I was building 100 words at a time and will likely have another Micro Fiction Challenge in the future.

 

Since then, April has started, and with it, Camp NaNoWriMo. My cabin is full of really interesting and encouraging people who have been super fun to start getting to know through their stories and writerly ideas.
I’m currently behind in my Camp NaNo project, but I set a goal based on time rather than words, so I will able to catch up later in the month when school is all wrapped up. Not only that, but instead of basing my success on the amount of words I have written, I have been able to slow down the writing a bit in order to flesh out my story and worldbuilding which has been incredibly fun! I’m slowly getting into the rhythm of writing and I’m really excited to see the story take off!

Something super exciting and bittersweet all at the same time is the fact that a short story I entered into the CBC Short Story Contest made the longlist from over 2,200 writers throughout Canada! (Give me a moment while I dance around the room for a second)

You can find the longlist here. And the little author bio they did for me here.
Unfortunately, the shortlist was announced today and I was not on it. But that’s okay! I have entered contests in the past and always left them discouraged, but this past week has been so incredible for even just having my name up on the website! I feel sad that I didn’t make it to the shortlist, but also encouraged and proud that something I wrote was seen as insightful enough to be listed among the same writers who made it onto the shortlist.
It is a bizarre feeling that has manifested itself in quiet contemplation for me. I want to smile, I want to cry, I want to write, I want to share the story that gave me this opportunity, but I mostly just want to exist in this moment of bittersweetness.

Moving on to my near future goals.

  • I want to successfully complete Camp NaNoWriMo

I have been loving the story, the worldbuilding, and spending time doing something so much more relaxing than writing papers!

  • I want to look at the story that got me onto a longlist and think about where it fits in terms of publishing, editing, rewriting, reworking.

I have decided to refrain from releasing the story at this time until I can contemplate what future it may have.

  • I want to keep blogging!

I love this outlet for sharing my thoughts and feelings on writing and being a writer and want to continue to do that on a weekly basis!

Further into the future, or goals that are a little more long-term.

  • I want to do something with my children’s stories.
  • I want to edit one of my projects.
  • I want to finish the first draft of the last book I didn’t finish.
  • I want to write a play.

So there is a brief recap of March, the first week of April, the situation with the CBC Short Story Contest as well as a couple of my near and far future goals.

What kinds of writing goals are you working toward?