Have you ever heard a writer talk about her characters as if… they were real? Like, as if the writer were not entirely in control of her own work? It used to be my pet peeve to hear writers say “my main character told me _____,” or in more ludicrous scenarios, “my main character refused to show up today” or even “my main character and I are in therapy together.” I’d see other writers chiming in on the comments saying, “I’d go if my MC would show up but she’s not talking to me!” I thought it was so absurdly woo-woo, and I just wanted to yell You are the writer! You are in control!
I still find these comments irritating and believe this approach to writing can be harmful when done a certain way. Writing is not magic, it is work, and you have to be your muse’s boss. But I want to share a recent lesson that has me re-examining these writers’ relationships to their work and their understandings of their characters. Because unless you’re writing an iconic character (those larger-than-life characters that don’t change across their episodic adventures, like James Bond or Indiana Jones), the best characters are the three-dimensional, dynamic ones that seem like they could walk right off the page. The ones that operate like real people. And like it or not, once you’ve created this kind of character, you’ve forfeited a certain amount of control. Or, you ought to: with these characters, it’s possible to take too much control and ruin the illusion that they are fully realized and logically behaving people. The writer’s job is more to manipulate them than to control them.
I like this metaphor: Imagine you’re a casting director for a movie. You have a list of traits in mind that are required for the role of main character: female, 13-14 years old, small for her age, timid but could be persuaded to take a big risk. Depending on the role you have in mind, you may or may not need her to play basketball, have freckles, be an only child, or like pizza with olives. Don’t get hung up on what you don’t need just yet, see who shows up to your casting call with the required traits – and see what kind of baggage they bring with them. As you allow a few actors to read lines, you’ll notice that the one with an eating disorder delivers them differently than the star mathlete. They have different ideas for their characters, and maybe they improvise a little bit. There are a few you think ugh, she did not get the vision I have for this project and maybe there’s one you think wow, that is my character! You may realize you like what several of the actors bring, and amend your call to add “star mathlete with eating disorder,” and continue your search. The point is, the fully formed person you put on the page should have layers and levels beyond the ingredients you need, and those layers and levels will determine how and why they are the character you need.
I like to approach writing characters like this. I know what I need, and I let whoever shows up fill in the rest. I recently had my first genuine “my character told me he was _____” moment, and I was shocked—maybe initially horrified—with myself. This was not the kind of writer I knew myself to be or wanted to be. But, I had to admit, what he’d “told” me made a lot of sense; I couldn’t deny what I had discovered—not dictated—about him. At the start of the project, all I knew for this character was that I needed a lanky comic relief who could be the best friend turned love interest. When Kirby showed up, he “explained” to me that he used humor as a way to control his emotional distance with people, and that he’d run away from a group home and was now living on the streets. He also told me he was going to be the physics genius of the ensemble, and that he loved comic books. Because the book’s premise involves the assembling of a bunch of disparate teens with superpowers, Kirby walks onto the page into a group of characters who know nothing about him, and it’s a fresh start. That fact that he’s homeless doesn’t come up in book one (I’m not sure when it will be revealed), but now that I know this part of the still-hidden iceberg, I can write his behaviors to line up with someone who tries to stay positive and doesn’t like making others uncomfortable, who is free of a stigma he’s been burdened by for several years, but who is increasingly uncomfortable hiding his past from people the closer he gets to them.
I now have to write Kirby in a way that is informed by and in line with this part of his background. I have given up some control, because I can’t use my magic keyboard to type out any action or dialogue I want. I have to get creative and create the circumstances in which he would do or say the things the story requires of him when they’re out of character: If Kirby likes to keep things light and make others laugh, what would it take for him to lash out with a mean comment? It’s my job now to get him to a place in which he would believably shed the nice-guy positive outlook and be the cynic, and if I don’t I run the risk of ruining the illusion that Kirby is real for the reader.
In another book I’ve been redrafting and redrafting and redrafting, my main character is helped by someone in law enforcement. In the first draft, he was FBI, but I wrote him in a way that my critique partners told me read as unheroic and, frankly, stupid. I got all sorts of comments saying wouldn’t he just ____? and He really doesn’t have a way to ____? And my only answer was that I just needed him not to solve that problem yet, that I needed him to believe a certain lie or keep a secret from someone who could help. Those are fine reasons for me, but terrible reasons for him. In subsequent rewrites, I changed him to local PD so he could be a bit less competent and connected but in an in-over-his-head way and not a bad-at-his-job way. Then arose a new problem: he was taking some big risks for my main character, who he hardly knew, and the feedback became Why is he doing this for her? Couldn’t he get fired? and while there is a bit of a will-they-won’t-they romance subplot, there’s no way my main character would be compelling enough to get him to behave the way I needed him to. I spent some time screen-testing the character—to keep the analogy alive—and spending more time with him to find out who he was, where he came from, what he wanted. I wrote down what I needed, and I waited to see who showed up. Now, he’s a local homicide detective who wants to return to the job he left at the FBI when his brother’s death unmoored the family, and he hopes maybe the bizarre case he’s stumbled into could be his ticket back in. He’s motivated to take risks, he’s still smart and sexy but he’s in a po-dunk town where his colleagues dismissively call him “hot shot.” Each of my main and secondary characters has his own motivations, her own fully fleshed out reality, and a past and a future beyond what’s conveyed in the pages of the book. They can’t simply do what I want on command: I have to coax the actions I need out of them by understanding who they are and what they want.
Kirby isn’t the funny guy because I wanted a funny guy, and the detective can’t be a risk-taker because I needed him to take a risk. They have to behave how they do on the page because their behavior—whose actions and reactions—is controlled by the same things that control yours and mine. This also means that they can’t break mold unless I give them a believable reason to do so. I needed a funny guy, I needed a risk taker, but the people who showed up to fill those roles went beyond those traits and also have reasons for possessing those traits.
I still stand by my fairly non-magical approach to writing: butt in chair, hands on keyboard, put in the work. Though I am intensely compelled to write, I don’t consider myself a natural writer of a fiction, the craft of it does not come easily to me at all. I got a degree in writing, listen to hours and hours of podcasts (my very favorite being Writing Excuses), and pore over books about how to write (I’m currently recommending Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy), and of course I read lots of fiction (though never as much as I’d like). The result is a somewhat un-artistic approach to writing (look no further than the titles of Larry Brooks’ books on craft, Story Engineering and Story Physics, to get a sense of how I approach the process). But I found that this slightly out-of-my-comfort-zone view of characters has been just the dash of woo-woo I needed to reinvigorate my writing, which had recently become mired in fearful over-analyzation.
For me, a big key has been shifting my view of my role from “controlling” toward “manipulating,” and from “dictating” to “discovering.” I’ve found my imagination to be a much more fun, creative space now that it’s populated with characters that I can pose questions to, that I can put in a sandbox and see what happens when they’re given this or that obstacle.
What do you think—do your characters talk to you? What do you do to better understand the characters you’ve created, and how do you navigate being the all-powerful Writer with creating and protecting three-dimensionality in your characters?
Eleanor Roth is a reader of all things and a writer of adult and YA science fiction. Based in Chicago, she’s the Assistant to the President at Browne & Miller Literary Associates and she reviews middle grade and young adult science fiction for Booklist. A native of Los Angeles, Ellie has also worked as a production assistant in the film/TV industry. She holds a BA in writing from Wheaton College and is currently in the University of Chicago’s manuscript editing certificate program. You find her on Twitter at @Ellie_Roth.