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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3 thoughts on “Allowing Characters to Take Control of the Story

  1. That’s really interesting. Do you think your own state of mind or mood affects what the character does? What if your had been a bit grumpy when you wrote this? Would it have transferred to your character? I guess I wonder how much the author’s mood affects character development?

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    1. I can’t say for sure whether my mood affects character development, but I would be inclined to say that it may affect the micro part of writing like word choice and tone rather than the macro things like plot and character choices. I’m curious now, so I shall pay attention to my mood and see what I uncover.

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