April 18, 2013 by KWills
When I started to get serious about writing, I did a lot of poking around internet forums and writerly blogs in the hopes of picking up a few tips and tricks. One of the things I heard often from writers was that their characters would take over in the stories, and refuse to behave in accordance with the plot. I read these laments with a strongly quirked eyebrow.
“Oh, come on!” I said to myself. “They’re your characters, for goodness sake! Just write them doing what you want them to do!” These writers, I thought, were being awfully silly and precious about their characters. A suspicion lurked in my brain that blaming the characters was the excuse of a bad writer. “You’ll never catch me whining about ‘uncooperative’ characters,” I vowed. “My imagination isn’t the boss of me.”
Well, serve me up a double helping of humble pie. Wouldn’t you know it, within a few weeks of working on my first novel, my characters started to give me trouble. I realised that once a character has an established personality, you can’t make him do just anything. Every action, every line of dialogue, has to match the personality of the character as revealed in all previous actions and dialogue. There comes a point where you cannot have your responsible, level-headed aunt suddenly decide to do something selfish and reckless. Not because you don’t know how to write selfish and reckless, but because it is not a thing that this character would ever do. And if you force her into the out-of-character action, the story will break. The reader will be whisked straight out of your carefully-constructed fiction and dumped back into the real world, where the whole business is nothing more than words on paper.
A story is a fragile thing, and I quickly learned that every twist and turn in the plot needs to be supported by what comes before. I can make my aunt behave recklessly, but only by redesigning her whole personality. What if she was a wild child in her youth, but was forced to grow up and appear responsible when given a young nephew to look after? The responsible, level-headed aunt is still there, but her reckless side is also established. If it is vital to the plot for her to be the one to lead the rash action, then I need to make sure that I go back into what is already written and lay the groundwork.
I began to think of my story as a clay model, built from the ground up. In the beginning, I can do anything, but once the story starts to grow, I can only build onto what is already there. If I decide to make alterations halfway, those must be supported from the base. I can go back and re-shape the base as often as I like, but I can’t just graft a huge block onto one side of the structure and expect it to stand up. A story has to balance, and the personalities of the characters are the backbone of the whole thing.
I have to go now. My characters are being difficult and refusing to cooperate with my dramatic climax. Time for a few personality adjustments, I think…