New FAQ from a Reader

A reader recently asked me this, and I have added it to my FAQs page.

Q. I’ve heard writers say “I was going to do X, but then the character did Y.” I always think, Wait, aren’t you the one who makes up what the character does?

A. Well, it may sound strange, but when we are writing fiction, the characters do “come to life” and do things the author wasn’t completely planning. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if this does not happen, then the story is not working. All the richest parts of my own stories have come about as a result of this phenomenon.

Of course, the author still has to “make up” what the character is doing in a sense, and write it down. But it seems to come from somewhere else at the same time. This is similar to what happens to actors and musicians when they talk about “being in the zone.” They still have to play the notes or say the words, and they need to be talented and to have practiced. But something more is also going on. This is the reason that ancient poets and storytellers used to invoke the Muse before embarking on their art.

I’m not sure this phenomenon is experienced by every single fiction writer. Perhaps there are some very meticulous plotters who don’t experience this and who still write perfectly good books. But this “characters coming to life” thing is definitely a part of my own process, and I’ve heard many other authors talk about it, so I know I’m not the only one.

On a related note, I’ve heard that some people write up “character sheets” before they begin drafting their novel. They come up with details about the character’s personality, back story, etc. In my case, I don’t do this kind of thing before I start drafting; instead, it’s part of the drafting process. I observe how the characters react in the situations I place them, and they reveal back story as we go. It wasn’t until after writing The Long Guest, for example, that I was able to tell that Nirri is an ESTP on the Meyers-Briggs. And MBTI typing him, by then, was just more a silly, fun exercise than a part of character development.

Fellow authors, please chime in about whether and how you have experienced this phenomenon. Do you count on your characters coming to life during the drafting or outlining process? Or is it something that occasionally happens, and you enjoy, but that you can get through a novel without? Has a character ever become so recalcitrant that you had to re-work your entire plot?

10 thoughts on “New FAQ from a Reader

      1. Okay Jen. It’s been a while since I’ve written any fiction. I see most of my scenes like a movie, and cast the characters based on real life people, particularly for physical descriptions. I also say their lines out loud so they sound right. And, yes, it sometimes goes places I had not expected.

        Also, sometimes when I’m not actually writing, scenes come to mind that I say out loud, in hopes I’ll remember them late and record them. This usually happens when I’m driving and trying to work out a scene in my mind.

        Lastly, a big source for me is my dreams. My first book ‘came to me’ almost entirely in dreams. When I get back to doing a sequel for ‘Spy’ after we’ve moved I’m going to have to dream a lot of it. I can’t seem to work out how to incorporate various things I think would be cool in my mind.

        Better?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, that’s right! It is all coming back to me now! You say you are a plotter, but you are actually a dreamer, with just as many visits from the Muse!

          And yes, I do hate it when scenes occur while we are doing something such as driving. Wonder why that should be? I once had an entire short story come to me while I was driving across country for a move. Grr. Also, while vacuuming.

          Best to you guys. I hope the move goes well!

          Like

  1. Chris Schallert, Idea Engine

    In my second novel, I used a character to introduce the story that would follow another character. That intro guy surprised me by becoming central to the plot. And became a close personal friend of the nation character, who almost killed him. I had the whole story outlined, and he added actual life to it.
    I need to get that book in to an editor.

    Liked by 1 person

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