April 03, 2020, 12:21:32 PM

Author Topic: Characters with a mind of their own  (Read 1130 times)

Online cupiscent

Characters with a mind of their own
« on: January 03, 2020, 03:19:51 AM »
A friend sent me a very interesting article and at the risk of breaking my beautiful stat of having only started a dozen topics, I thought it might also be of interest to other writers here and/or make for some interesting discussion, so...

How do some authors lose control of their characters? by Jim Davies over on LitHub.

The core question is an interesting one to start with - are you one of those writers whose characters take over? Are you always in control? (...did you have imaginary friends as children?)

I also found the ideas about brain-automation fascinating, and I think it probably has a lot to do with the idea of "writing habits" being essential, allowing your brain to automate / grow accustomed to patterns of creativity and thinking in certain ways.

Online Alex Hormann

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Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #1 on: January 03, 2020, 05:30:07 PM »
I have never understood people who say they can't control their characters.

They are fictional. They have no agency. They only exist because you created them and only do what you say you do. Beyond what you write, there is nothing to them at all.

I can sort of understand people who get very wrapped up in their characters, who build them so completely that in order to further the plot, the character would have to act in manner contrary to what they have done previously, but this only happens because you, the author, wrote them that way. It's an issue of writing mechanics, not fictional beings exerting influence on you.
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Online cupiscent

Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #2 on: January 03, 2020, 11:54:58 PM »
I tend to agree - I am God, I can make the characters do whatever I want.

On the other hand, it won't necessarily be consistent with their character to do that. But that's where the being-God comes in - I can change the world and the story hitherto to put them in a situation where they would do what I need them to do.

It probably helps, in my case, that I tend to like twisty, complicated, ambiguous characters. I have a lot of characters where I can probably get them to do just about anything, if I build the context right.

Offline Peat

Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #3 on: January 04, 2020, 12:05:11 AM »
On the one hand, put me down on "They're my characters, damnit. I can give them brain surgery if I want".

On the other...  that automatic unconscious part of the brain is huge. I'm a big believer that if you want to do your best work, you get that to do the work. Channelling it through a character rather than "Wait, no, this is a mistake" is just a different conduit from the same powerful source.

So I'd love to get to a stage where this is happening.

Offline Matthew

Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #4 on: January 04, 2020, 02:31:45 AM »
I'm a fan of letting my characters run the show. I know they're in my head and will do and say whatever I want them to, but somehow their actions feel more authentic if I don't 'plan'. It's probably why I really struggle to write a scene where I know what has to happen.

Offline Lu Kudzoza

Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #5 on: January 04, 2020, 06:46:26 PM »
I think the best characters are probably the ones that have a mind of their own. Or better said by @Peat, the writing is channeled through the character.

I just finished both of Brent Weeks series and was disappointed with some of his characters that suddenly changed their nature because he needed it to happen to move the plot along. If he'd channeled the story through the character the characters wouldn't have been able to change so drastically... because the character's nature wouldn't have let him play god that way. Instead, the he would have had take the time to change the character's nature through a series of events that explained the reason for the change.

Offline Justan Henner

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Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #6 on: January 04, 2020, 07:53:00 PM »
I'm as conflicted on this one as my number of imagined personalities.

I've never had an argument with a character, but I feel like I very much get "in character" while writing. There is a weird feeling that comes with it, that it does feel like their thoughts rather than mine, and it is something that I would call a trance.

It's weird though, I feel like there's simultaneously a distance between you and them and a firm understanding that it's all coming out of who I am, to the point that for a lot of characters, and a lot of their monologues, thoughts, and so forth, I can pinpoint the emotion I was feeling at the time that led to their perspective. (Not all the time. Sometimes the baddies be raping and pillaging).

I really like the way Jim Davies is breaking it down, because when I do get into that trance, it does feel automatic, and that is the point when I feel the most distance between the character, and the most as if the character is acting on their own.

It also seems like some characters have more agency than others, and the amount of agency seems to fluctuate depending on my mood, which makes me think that the closer I am aligned (or disaligned) with their personality, the easier the character is to write. Though, that is likely just the general bucket of 'how interested in this am I?'

Online Eclipse

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Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #7 on: January 04, 2020, 10:27:10 PM »
I feel you very aligned to Not lu @Justan Henner
According to some,* heroic deaths are admirable things

* Generally those who don't have to do it.Politicians and writers spring to mind

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Offline Skip

Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #8 on: January 05, 2020, 03:04:55 AM »
My characters don't tell me things. They don't do unexpected things. What they do comes out of the end of my pen.

And yet....

I have this funny sense of obligation to them. The more important they are to the story, the more I want to do right by them, to tell a story that is worthy of them, whether villain or hero. I hate thinking that readers will get the book and not care about the characters as much as I want them to, and that if they don't care, it's my fault.

Because it is.

But saying I want the story to be worthy of the character in some way does give a kind of separate standing to that fictional creation. It's a little silly, but there it is.

As for planning scenes, I feel quite differently than Matthew (and many others). I may know what must happen, and I may even know how each character ought to react. But the excitement and the craft lie in creating that in words. If a character is supposed to be outraged by something they witness, there are thousands of ways to portray this. My job is to get the reader to feel it along with the character. That's challenging and fascinating and deeply gratifying (when I can manage it).

I've made the analogy with jazz before, but that won't prevent me from making it again. The musicians know the song. They know the key and the chord progressions and phrases of melody. But that doesn't take the life out of the performance. Instead, it gives structure to the performance. To me, "pantsing" is the equivalent of random people getting on stage, grabbing random instruments, and playing whatever each one feels like. Sure, once in a while something like a song might emerge, but why do it that way when there are better ways?

That said, I have to acknowledge that many writers write many good stories in "unexpected" ways, however improbable that may seem. At which point I just shrug and call it art and admire the results.

Offline Justan Henner

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Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #9 on: January 05, 2020, 05:30:11 AM »
I feel you very aligned to Not lu @Justan Henner

Well, Lu is usually the spirits speaking through me, and not the spectral sort.

Offline NedMarcus

Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #10 on: January 05, 2020, 07:26:31 AM »
I have never understood people who say they can't control their characters.

Interesting. I have never understood people who say they can control their characters  ;D

My characters speak to me, and if I try to make them do something they don't want they can shout. I almost allowed one of my protagonists to live in one of my stories; within seconds she was standing in front of me berating me. Of course, I understand that I really experienced something from the unconscious part of my mind—really it was me speaking to me, but it felt real enough. But I knew she was right, and I promptly killed her.

No, I never had an imaginary friend as a child, although, probably like many of us, I had a very active imagination.


Offline Neveesandeh

Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #11 on: January 05, 2020, 09:01:35 AM »
I always plan out a story before I write it, so I never feel that my characters have a mind of their own. To be honest, I don't have all that much faith in my own skills as a writer and I'm pretty sure a lot of them won't have distinctive personalities until later drafts, long after I have decided what they believe and what they're going to do.

Offline NedMarcus

Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #12 on: January 06, 2020, 04:23:13 AM »
I'm pretty sure a lot of them won't have distinctive personalities until later drafts, long after I have decided what they believe and what they're going to do.

It takes time. One thing that helped me was writing short stories focussing on some of the main characters.

Offline Neveesandeh

Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #13 on: January 06, 2020, 11:38:20 AM »
I'm pretty sure a lot of them won't have distinctive personalities until later drafts, long after I have decided what they believe and what they're going to do.

It takes time. One thing that helped me was writing short stories focussing on some of the main characters.

I have tried this once or twice. It does tend to be pretty useful.

Offline Aldarion

Re: Characters with a mind of their own
« Reply #14 on: January 07, 2020, 10:46:56 AM »
Personally, I feel that process of writing is one of a series of dialogues, between the world / setting, characters, plot, events and so on. If done well, it will often lead to characters developing in unexpected ways, because complex systems like that lead to unforeseen consequences.