Do you trust your characters to write a novel?

by Autumn Birt

A while back, each of the Guild members wrote about their plot development style as a plotter or pantser (or somewhere in-between).

I’m pretty much a plotter. I keep small journals on hand to scribble down notes and ideas as they come to me, usually at amazingly inconvenient times like while making dinner. I outline the entire story arc, make notes on the minor plot threads that need to be tied up (especially now writing book 3 of my epic fantasy series. Two books of prior plot threads, ack!), and when I’m ready to really write, I outline the chapters by POV with brief notes on what is going on.

If only my characters were benign enough to just hand me lightbulbs...

If only my characters were benign enough to just hand me lightbulbs…

It sounds hugely time consuming, but since this is usually taking place when I could never actually be on my laptop writing (remember, ideas while making dinner. My husband has become acquainted with late and slightly overdone meals), it actually helps me write faster. When I finally DO get the time to write, I know exactly where I’m headed.

But that isn’t entirely true anymore.

You see, I have one character that I can never create an outline for. He is the anti-hero of the series. He never, EVER does what I want him to. Or what I expect. Actually, I think he is smarter than me, just don’t tell him that!

Seriously, when I sketched out my chapter outlines for book 2, Rule of Fire (not to interrupt this thought, but did you see the cover reveal last week??? Release of the book is next week. I’m so excited! Okay, back to the blog post.) and I wrote down his name, Sinika, as the POV. The rest was left blank. No notes on chapter content, action, place, nada. It drove me crazy.

But, I learned to accept that when the time came, he’d tell me what he was doing (maybe not planning, but doing sure). I had to trust him. Well, trust him with the plot. I wouldn’t trust him alone with a house plant I liked. His actions in the novel sometimes made no sense to me until later when he ever-so-nicely tied up a scheme I never saw coming. He is a chess master. I’m not even sure how pawns move.

I had never experienced that before, having a character who outwits me while I’m writing the darn novel! Which makes working on book 3 so much more interesting. I think I know what is going to happen and how it is going to end. But…with Sinika around, I’m just not sure. He is devious. I’m afraid he may just surprise me (again).

One character having a mind of their own as I wrote book 2 wasn’t a problem. But, it started to spread.

Never as bad as Sinika, thank goodness. I usually at least knew where the characters were and what they were up to (I sound like a parent, don’t I? sigh). But they took over dialog exchanges so well I had a hard time keeping up – and I type fast!

And then towards the end of the novel, I realized I’d completely flubbed up. I’d set up a situation that was bound to fail according to the rules of the world I’d created. It really needed to succeed or everyone would die or be captured. Crap.

Then one character jumped up and solved the problem while I was only just realizing it existed.

What the heck?

I’m not a pantser, but apparently my cast of characters have nooo problem with improv. It was a perfect solution. It added drama. And another chapter of my novel that I had to write. But I can’t grumble too much about that, as it ended up being an awesome and pivotal chapter. It is like thinking you’d screwed up only to realize you just designed the Eiffel Tower. Why complain?

So what does this mean about my plotter ways?

Well…I still outlined the chapters with POV along with brief ideas of the action. I have to make sure the pacing is okay and no one gets too far off target. This is supposed to be a trilogy for goodness sakes (ahem – I hope they are listening). I made notes on the story arc too. But when I had problems on tying up those plot threads…well I asked them what they thought (well, not Sinika. He wouldn’t tell me anyway. Just smirks, darn him.). It has worked out beautifully. I’ve abandoned some rough ideas that weren’t as true to the characters as they should have been (which they pointed out) and some points will be wrapped up so beautifully I only wish I could say I’d planned it from the beginning.

I’ve barely written three chapters so far to Spirit of Life, book 3 in the series. But I’m really excited to see where the characters take the story. They are in control. This is as close as I get as the author to a reader’s experience of being led through a novel. I just have to trust my group of characters know where they are headed…even Sinika (oh dear).

– Autumn is the author of the epic fantasy novel Born of Water and its Novel Companion and, most recently, the compilation of adventure travel stories Danger Peligros! All are available at Amazon, Smashwords, and other retailers of e-novels. Her next novel, Rule of Fire, will be available JUNE 21. You can also find her online on Twitter at @weifarer or on her Facebook page and on Goodreads.


12 comments on “Do you trust your characters to write a novel?

  1. Yes. That is the way it is for me. I’ve tried outlines, tried writing certain scenes that should just drop into place, but when I get to that point, my characters aren’t in the same country, and some are no longer living.

    After struggling with outlines and scene preps for a few years with my first novel “Shadows in the Stone”, I decided to just let it be. Instead I followed the characters and they told me what to write. Although I loved writing before this, I absolutely adored the new freedom.

    Like you, it was like reading the story as if a reader. I remember the first time it happened. I had forced myself to complete the first draft in record time (80,000 in six weeks while working and raising kids). When I went back to edit those words, I was surprised by the story. I hadn’t even remembered what I wrote. I would have sworn someone else had sneaked in and typed it.

    That’s when I realised that I should write fast and furious and let the characters tell the story.

    Thanks for the post. It makes me eager to get back to that gang of characters. If it weren’t for those other projects (stories) that pop up, I’d be back there now.

    So the answer is yes: I trust my characters (even the bad guys) to write the story.

    • That sounds like an amazing experience, Diane, to really pound through a novel with the characters leading the way. I experienced a bit of what you said as I worked on edits, finding passages and asking myself “did I write that?” Maybe our characters have learned to type while we sleep? (If only!)

      Glad the post inspired you. Your experiences have me itching to get into book 3 and just let them have at it!

  2. I can’t write without an outline. I always used to say I was a pantser – that outlines restricted creativity – but then I never actually finished anything. Then I wrote Magic University, where the outline was inherent to the plot, and that was when I realized I *needed* an outline because I couldn’t write properly without knowing where I was going. Twenty completed novels after my change in process I think proves this (when I had only ever finished one really horrible trunk novel before that, when I was a teenager, and the plot was bad and all over the place.) I’ve said time and time again, effective methodology is dependent on so many factors that what works for one writer really depends on that writer. Our brains work in different ways, our personalities differ and even our schedules and family life can come into play.
    Not that there isn’t something organic to my writing. I have the same issues with unruly characters that you do. They don’t always stick to the outline, and sometimes you do have to just let them lead while you follow. I think we all have rebels in our tales: the ones who generally don’t follow rules or who are smarter than you so they sometimes dictate outcomes you hadn’t contemplated at first. I enjoy those characters. They are part of the discovery process and they make writing fun.

    • Well, I think 20 novels means you’ve found a tried and true process that works for you! I have a feeling I’ll always have an outline and check chapter/plot pacing, but I’m much more open to my character’s randomness. But I do wonder if that was because it is book 2? I’ve gone through so much with them where if I were starting fresh, we wouldn’t know each other so well… Maybe writing some short stories before a book 1 could help start us all off! 😉

  3. I love having character’s take over. It’s always so exciting seeing what they are doing. It kinda combines the fun of reading a story (What happens next!) with the joy of writing one.

    I’ve got one like Sinika, side character at the moment who has be squeezing his way from very minor walk-on to important secondary character, and I think is planning for a starring role in the sequel. I know he’s got plots and plans I’ve never gotten a whiff of. Waiting to see what he brings me next.

  4. I never use outlines and completely leave it to all my characters to write the plot. The way they go off on their own and do totally unexpected things is the #1 high of writing fiction for me. The fact that all these people live entirely within my head but are very much alive in there, and every one of them has “free will” is thrilling. Do they send me down blind alleys and box canyons sometimes? Absolutely. Does it take me longer to write because I have to back them up, reel and rein them in and set them on new courses? You bet. Is this frustrating? Sure. But it’s also FUN. And the fun of writing is the main reason I do it. Perhaps one day I’ll actually make a significant income from my fiction and there will be pressure to write more efficiently, and I’ll start having to use outlines and keep characters in line. But for now, I am gonna let them all run wild.

    • I had a comment on Google+ where someone described their style as half plotter and half mayhem. I’m so going to use that from now on! Of course, you sound all mayhem. Keep having fun and I hope you DO make significant income, but can keep the wild characters and fun too. 😀

  5. I am definitely a pantser. I feel as though I’m an oracle who the characters consult with now and then. On more mundane days, I stick a camera in their face and say, “What are YOU doing this evening?”

    There are one or two major events I see in advance before they’re written, but other than that the characters dictate everything. More often than not, they breeze by me during the day, trailing the story behind them.

  6. Pingback: Determing the best POV and tense for your novel Part Two: Working Backwards | Page by page

  7. Pingback: Letting Your Characters Run Wild

  8. Pingback: A bit on Villains and an excerpt from epic fantasy Spirit of Life | Autumn Writing

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