Characters and their influence on you

Gutentag, those of you crazy enough to follow the things I say. In between runs to the bathroom and sucking down cough drops like they’re going out of style – I believe I’ve come down with strep, yet again – I’ve been following a few threads discussing how authors write.

There seem to be two primary camps; the plotters and the seat-of-the-pantsers. There’s dozens of variations and permutations, as well as some that seem to reside in the zone between the two extremes, but for the most part it looks like people either determine all the major events and then set to writing them and filling in the blanks, and those who start at point A (possibly imagining a potential point Z, possibly not) and then start throwing words at it and see where it goes.

Now, I’m not advocating that one or the other is “better,” or “wrong,” or “THE ONE TRUE PATH!!!” but it is interesting reading. Myself, I fall more into the Seat-of-the-Pants category, but so far I’ve yet to run into anyone who does it quite the way I do… and even fellow SotPers seem to think I’m insane for doing it.

Let me preface this by pointing out that my favorite book of all time is ‘Salem’s Lot. I love it dearly. I love the characters, I love the setting, I love the presentation. Yeah, it’s probably a little outdated – as King himself has noted, he’s “always been more a writer of the moment than he wanted to be” – but that has never bothered me. Mr. Mears, Master Petrie, Dr. Cody, Mr. Burke, Father Callahan and their elusive nemesis Barlow have lurked in the back of my mind since my first introduction to them twenty-five years ago. It was the first “adult” book I read, and remains one I come back to every so often.

Why is this relevant? Because a couple of somethings that the esteemed Mr. King said in the Preface to several editions of this book have stuck with me and become my watchwords. One: “The book is the boss.” Two: “[My characters] came alive and began to do things – sometimes smart things, sometimes foolishly brave things – on their own….Ben Mears wanted to become a hero, so I let him and I have never been sorry.”

When I write, I always “see” the characters first; the setting is almost an afterthought as is the plot that will one day become their memoir. I see the person, monster, alien, animal or thing and in my head I start asking questions. “Who are you? What are you? Why are you here? What are you doing? Why? What happened to you before you got to here, wherever here may be?” Yes, that does mean I essentially sit there and talk to myself. But on the days when the words want to flow and I know it’s time to drag out the word processor and start to work, sometimes they talk back. That character will start answering those questions. Once I know enough to have a place to begin, I do so… but it’s not me telling the story as it pours onto the page. It’s the character.

I can almost feel them, sometimes, sitting over my shoulder and dictating to me. Michael Drakanis and Vincent Parker told me all about the hunt for Karesh ibn Karesh and his demonic painting; Andrew Weiss whispered to me about who he’d killed and why, while Ophelia finally shouted him down to tell me what happened when he picked the wrong playmate. If I get stuck or the message becomes unclear, I stop and turn to my “narrator” and ask them “And then…?” I’ll prod them about every aspect until something jumps out as what comes next.

Yes, this sometimes leads to moments of “Wow, I didn’t see that coming…” when the events they describe, no matter how much “in-character” they are for the moment, interfere with whatever ideas I’ve been formulating as being the end game, but to me that’s part of the fun. A lot of the time, I’m just as surprised by what’s going on as any potential reader might be, as surprised as I imagine Stephen King was when Ben Mears decided he’d had enough and was going after his toothsome enemy directly, and hell with the consequences.

When painted into those corners – oh noes, my hero has suffered an unfortunate imprisonment, dismemberment or betrayal, now what? – if my “primary narrator” shrugs at me and says “Don’t look at me, man, I don’t know what happened,” then I go through the list of my characters. I ask all of them what happened next. Sometimes one of them will come up with a way out. Sometimes all of them shrug and say “Sucks to be that guy!” But whatever the roll of the dice in that situation, I let it flow and see where it comes out. Sometimes it ends up dead-ending or killing the story (Ergo why I’ve tried about ten different approaches to Ebon Dragon), but more often than not it leads to something I find to be more satisfying than whatever I had “planned” or thought was going to happen. Woken turned out quite a bit differently than I was expecting, and Parker and Drakanis’ fate was almost a complete 180 from where I pictured it some 12 years before it was finally published.

Like I said, some people think I’m insane; I guess talking to “imaginary friends” and taking their advice on how to write a story does sound a trifle batty, and the Plotters quail in horror at the idea that I have no more clues as to what’s going to happen than the reader at any given moment. It causes a few headaches in the editing phase, where I have to go through and trim stuff that seemed important to the narrator I was listening to at the time, but that ended up being extraneous or just plain “wrong” in the greater scheme of things, but at this point of the game I still think it’s worth it… and don’t know how I’d change it even if I wanted to.

So what’s your take? Are you a pantser or a plotter? How much say do you grant your noble heroes and vile villains in controlling their own destiny? Am I as insane as I sometimes think I am for writing this way? Comments and tweets welcome below… I’d love to hear other people’s stance on this one.

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One response to “Characters and their influence on you

  1. Pingback: Prince Syndrome, Writing ADD, naming things, and trying to get things done | Insomnia, Nightmares and General Madness

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