A Surprising Revelation
If you have never tried to write a book, then the title of this post probably makes no sense to you. It's not something you really understand until you've been through the process. If you have written short stories in the past, you may have experienced a little of this, but the flow of a short story is often easier for an author to control than that of a full-length novel. So if you've never written a book, you're probably looking at my title and thinking, "That doesn't make sense. Doesn't the author choose what happens in the story?" If you have written your own book, then you are nodding and thinking to yourself, "This is true. This is absolutely true." If you have written many books, then you probably saw my title and thought, "Well, of course."
Why Does It Happen?
I cannot comment on anyone else's writing process. I only know why this happens when I'm writing. For me it usually stems from the necessity of filling in the details of a scene. The main character can't merely show up at her friend's house in one paragraph and immediately start in on a deep philosophical discussion in the next. There has to be some sort of transition. A bit of small talk, an observation of the surroundings, a physical description of the characters...something. It is in those inconsequential moments that my characters start taking over the story. Here are a couple of examples.
Meet Will Hathaway
My book Amelia's Children centers on Sarah Hathaway and David Jenson who meet and then team up to investigate a local unsolved murder. Will is Sarah's brother. In the beginning he existed for one specific reason. In the story, David is new in town and Sarah has just returned after a three year absence. I knew that they would not have had the connections that would have put them in touch with the people they would eventually need to help them solve the mystery. That's where Will comes in. Sarah is connected to him, and he is connected to pretty much everyone else in town. In the beginning I saw him as a very minor character, but he ended up having a much bigger part in the story than I anticipated. Here's how it happened.
I introduced his character at a family dinner at Sarah's parents' house. Aside from introducing Will, the main thing I wanted to do with this scene was show Sarah's strained relationship with her mom, so I contrasted Will, the perfect child, with Sarah, the wayward child. To do that I needed dialogue. But that dialogue took the story in a new direction, at least for Will. He shows up at the house with a peach cobbler, the only purpose of which was to give Sarah a reason to comment on the fact that her parents do not drink therefore a bottle of wine would not be an appropriate contribution to the meal. So Will brings a cobbler instead. But where does the cobbler come from? Oh...why not from a coworker. Oh...and maybe the coworker is an attractive woman. Oh...and maybe the mom will hint that Will should ask her on a date. And suddenly...boom! Will has this whole backstory that I didn't know about before I wrote that scene. And of course that backstory becomes the motivation for many of the things he will do later in the book. Things I would never have thought of if it hadn't been for his mom's reaction to a peach cobbler.
Meet Ashley Preston
Okay, you really can't meet Ashley yet because I'm still writing her story, but I'll give you a glimpse of her. She is a primary character in my current work in progress, the title of which I haven't definitively chosen. I'm considering Primogénito, but am unsure if a Spanish title for an English book would be too confusing. Feel free to offer advice in the comments if you'd like. Anyway, back to my main topic.
Primogénito (if I decide to call it that) is about four people with a shared memory of one particular traumatic event. Damian is the one who experienced the worst of it, but five years later he has managed to put his life back together and is living happily with is wife, Jenn, who is also one of the primary characters. Things are fine for Damian and Jenn until Ashley shows up at their house announcing a new crisis and begging for Damian's help.
I originally imagined Ashley to be a confident, highly intelligent professional woman. She knows what Damian went through and is hesitant to bring him back into all of that. However, he is the only one who can help her, so she shows up at his house to make her request.
I was just a few paragraphs into the second chapter when Ashley's character started to change for me. When she sees Damian for the first time it brings back all of her darkest memories. At first I was just planning for her to be worried about Damian and glad to see that he was okay, but I needed to describe those feelings. So I started describing them and suddenly I had this new Ashley whose life has become a living hell and seeing Damian whole and strong is the only hope she has to cling to. When he smiles at her it takes her back to the way life was before everything went wrong, and she throws herself into his arms in an attempt to hold onto that feeling.
I learned a lot about Ashley in that scene. I learned that she and Damian had a romantic relationship in the past. Damian has moved on, but Ashley has lingering feelings for him. I also learned that while Damian was more physically damaged by what they all went through, Ashley is the one who is still emotionally broken. She is desperately hoping Damian will swoop in and put together the pieces of her shattered life.
Do You Have to Listen to Your Characters?
Well, of course in your writing you get to make the rules. You technically can do whatever the heck you want with your characters. But is that a good idea? What if I adamantly refused to write this new weaker Ashley who suddenly appeared in chapter two? What if I was so dead set on her being the most confident of the four main characters that I ignored everything she thinks as she watches Damian walk toward her that first time. What if I forced her character to stay within the parameters I initially set? I could do that, sure, but I would be fighting her the whole way. In every scene that is told from her point of view there would be a temptation to show her weaknesses. I would have to force myself to show her strengths, and she would end up being a not very believable character. So I'm listening to Ashley and am writing her story they way she wants it written. I do worry that she is becoming less likable than my original concept of her, but there are three other characters, so if readers can't identify with Ashley, they can identify with someone else.
I am curious to hear your thoughts about this. If you have stories about characters who hijacked your writing and made it their own, I would love for you to leave a comment.
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