Sunday, February 6, 2011

Who holds the pen— you or your characters?

Something that’s intrigued me as writer is: how much control do I have during the creation process? When I sit down to write, I usually have a brief outline either generated in ink or, at the very least, well defined in my brain. I usually know where I want to begin and have a ballpark estimate of how and where my story should end. The middle, or meat and potato portions of my tales usually dwell in very murky waters.



…my characters dictate their own direction. How so?

Let’s try a writing exercise.

I see a woman. Her name is Wendy. She’s tall and beautiful. She has brown hair and blue eyes. She loves the theater and Italian food. She loves her boyfriend, Max and has never cheated on him. She practices witchcraft and eats babies. Whoa! What happened there? She was almost perfect until I found out she loves the theater…

Just kidding.

The witchcraft and eating of babies just came out of nowhere. Or did it? How does the brain birth a person of our own devise? Is it our own devise?

Sometimes I get stuck in the middle of what I consider a strong story. Everything is going splendidly until I hit “the wall.” You writers know what I mean. There’s no way to get around it either, so I try breaking it down. I try going over it. I try going under it. Every attempt ends in failure. I look back and I can see Wendy with her arms crossed. She’s tapping her foot with a smug look of “I know what your problem is…you’re simply not listening to me.”

I get worried. Do other writers have conversations with figments of their imagination? Is it schizophrenia? Is there a bit of insanity in store for me? Is there any harm in listening to what Wendy has to say?

Maybe not. Okay…here goes.

Hey, Wendy. Uh, I think I’ve been a jerk. I probably haven’t been paying enough attention to you.

You haven’t.

I know. Sorry. But I’m willing to listen now. What should do? I’m stuck here in front of this wall, and I really don’t know what to do.

Angel, Angel, Angel…first of all, the main problem is my name isn’t Wendy.

It ain’t.

No. It’s actually Frank. And I’m short. And I hate the theater. And I cheat on my wife all the time.

Wow. No wonder I can’t get through this wall. I’m really sorry, Frankie.

Excuse me, it’s Frank.

Oh. Sorry, Frank. What now?

I need you to trust me.

How so?

I need you to give me that.

Give you what?

That pen in your hand.


Because that wall isn’t a wall at all.

It isn’t?

No. It’s a door. Watch. Give me the pen and I’ll show you.

* * *

Okay, a bit theatrical, but this is how it works for me sometimes. I have to hand over the reins to my characters. I have to give them control. I have to listen to them. It’s not enough to create this person from out of the thin air. I may have given Wendy…er, Frank his first breath, but I have to realize he longs to breathe on his own.

Okay, enough about me.

What’s it like for you and your creations?


  1. Yes, sometimes it is just like that! The "nice, sweet lady" you're writing about morphs into a serial killer. The person who you thought was originally the killer turns out to be an unsuspecting victim! Oh, and you thought this story was going to take place in Iowa? Guess again, it's going to be Arizona instead. Odd how we have preconceived notions of what our stories will be or what they will say, but the stories are busy creating themselves.....

  2. Oh yes Angel. You hit the nail on the head. Sometimes you have to stop writing and just listen for a bit and let them tell you what REALLY happened. ;)

  3. This is a great post, Angel!

    For me, I am the vessel (at first), just the way to get the character's and their story out, after it plops out, then it's my job to make it sparkly (ie. edits, cuts, word enhancements...etc.)

    Thanks for making me think, tho!
    Happy writing!!

  4. You said this so perfectly. It is these conversations you need to have. The communication. When I first went on my anti-seizure drugs several weeks ago, I was looking for the cream of mushroom soup and was so frustrated I couldn't find it, it reminded me in a weird off way of my frustration with the main chracter of my novella, Bianca. She is such a bitch, and yet so vulernable to the world around her. I started arguing with her how if she wants to rule the world like the Queen in the fable of the Blue Ants, she needs to get over her sissy fits and obsessions or I simply cannot rewrite the ending like I really want to do for her (it is the worst horrifying ending I have ever written for any character). Turns out I was talking out loud. Also turns out there was a Mexican lady standing beside me, she spoke very little english. But she started talking to me because she thought I was talking to her. And then she started handing me cans of soup, and I told her I just needed coffee and she knew the coffee word so we both laughed and nodded our heads and kept saying, "Si, si coffee! coffee!" She looked very tired herself. So we walked to the coffee aisle together and bought coffee and laughed. That was a weird and funny. I was very thankful for the language barrier. I could have hugged her.

    So anyway. I think you are right on every account. Thanks for sharing Z. Sorry about the long comment!

  5. I once new a beautiful man named Frank...we both hated the theater...unless it was one of those that served beer and pizza.

    I am with you on the wall - I actually have my hands wrapped around the throat of one story. The other two have ganged up and are currently braiding a noose.

    So, what I've done, sometimes it helps, sometimes not (I never, ever hand over my pen because that is about the only thing in life I have control over and I will fight it to the death!) is browse through a book I have on everything: symbols, history, geology, religion, etc. and just flipping through the pages and asking myself the important questions of the story (why am I stuck? What tone/mood do I want to create? Is there a lesson or is it for entertainment, etc.) and that’s when I might discover something cool like a girl who eats babies. Also sometimes, corny though it may be, but if I decipher my dreams, it gives me a deeper understanding for a character or story plot.

    Good luck, Angel, but after reading your awesome book, I’m certain your walls are not indestructible! Tell Wendy I said so!

  6. Yep, I’m sure we can all relate to this ‘problem’; characters wrestling control from us to rewrite the story as they see fit.

    The only difficulty I find is that if a character is a complete bastard, or bastardess, then they tend to try and nudge the story to suit their needs, disregarding the rest of the characters. Well, they don’t so much ‘nudge’ as they kick me in crown jewels, steal my pen and run around laughing manically whilst ripping my work to pieces. I just wish they would help me write down all the real and relevant stuff in the first place rather than deciding I’ve got it all wrong 20,000 words into a story.

    I suppose as writers we have to give birth to our characters and look after them long enough for them to grow into sulky teenagers and start deciding for themselves which direction they want to take.

  7. Love this post Angel. Wendy/Frank is out of line, but she/he'll straighten you out quick smart. On the other hand, I always liked Nabokov's comment that his characters were "galley slaves" - - different strokes, I guess. Personally, I find it a bit 50/50, or maybe 60/40. Misbehaving characters get written out.

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  9. In a way, I have all of the control. They do not get voices if I don't type, and they speak because I make up their words. But my best work comes almost unerringly from going with senses of flow and letting the characters "be." I've done enough writing to be able to shoulder the load, dragging the book from plot point to plot point, and it might even be good after the edits. To have any chance at being good at first, it's got to be all improvisation with only guidance and oversight from my scheming conscious.

  10. Don't worry; you are crazy. You'd be mad to write, and yet not be.

  11. Oh yeah...this is how I write too. What's buried deep in our minds can be so much richer than the story we initially thought of.