The Curious Case of the Character Conundrum

Posted: 08/05/2010 in Uncategorized Musings

Characters. These fictional beings are the very life and soul of your novel. They are one of, if not the, most important element of a story. If not for characters, your book would be nothing more than a travel log full of desolate, empty, ghost towns. Given their supreme importance, it’s no surprise then that creating solid characters would also be one of the hardest parts of writing.

But that’s not the half of it.

You see, once you create and start using a character in your story, chances are they may start doing some unexpected things. In fact, you may create a character with a specific personality in mind only to find that, half-way through the story, he’s doing things completely contradictory to your original idea.

This is all because, your characters are…..Alliiiiiivvvee!!!!

Congratulations, you have “created” bona-fide sentient life! That’s the way I see it anyway. You’ve given them unique personalities; they all have names, friends, enemies, rivals, histories, wants, fears, aspirations, quirks, flaws, idiosyncrasies. By definition, your characters are living, breathing,  people. That’s what can really make your story engaging.

Okay, sooo….Next problem: What are you suppose to do with these fictional people with minds of their own? Well, it’s almost like raising a kid: you guide them. Give them instructions, point them in the right direction; but don’t be afraid to alter those instructions if they start going in a different direction. You can’t force them to do anything they don’t want to do. It won’t feel natural. Granted, there have to be boundaries and guidelines; an everyday housewife can’t suddenly develop the ability to fly just because she wants to escape the doldrums:) There must be limits, but don’t be afraid to bend those limits if the characters or story calls for it. But it must always be natural.

If you’re a parent, this should be relatively easy to grasp. If not, think of it as trying to train someone on the job, or teach a student at school, or programming an advanced AI. You can give them directions, guidelines, even boundaries; but ultimately, they will do what they think is natural and you’ll just have to go along, fixing or changing things along the way. Ironically, it’s like reading someone else’s story or going on an adventure; you never know what will happen next so you have to be prepared for anything.

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