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Hey, Hey, Mama, Said the Way You Move, Gonna Make You Sweat, Gonna Make You Groove.

I feel like saying something that might be unpopular, but I don’t believe that “characters write themselves,” that they “have minds of their own,” that they “do things you didn’t expect,” etc. To me that’s like saying a marionette moves his own strings, that an onion peels its own layers, or a nose picks itself. Writers say things like this to me all the time and I struggle to understand. For me the whole joy of writing is being the great and mighty Oz. It is true that sometimes, in the writing, aspects of story or character reveal themselves. But to my mind that’s from years of practice like developing the ability to see many chess moves ahead, or playing a riff like Jimmy Page.

Do your characters act on their own volition?

73 Responses

  1. I KNOW! I’m glad it’s not just me. When someone says, “the character takes over and does what he/she wants,” I just want to say, “Who the hell is the writer here, anyway?”

    My characters do nothing of their own volition. They are powerless without me. So the BEST thing my main character did was save the world from worldwide destruction.

    Okay, that’s a lie. She never did any such thing.

  2. Laughing. Exactly how I feel, as evidenced in the bio from my last reading: http://bit.ly/pYbi4c

  3. @ScottWesterfeld said something very true on Twitter the other day: “Sometimes when I’m writing, a voice in my head says, “They’re going to know you’re just MAKING THIS UP”

    I guess what I’m saying is, sometimes my characters DO surprise me, but it’s up to me to know when they’re lying. Sometimes I have to shut them down and tell them to get in line.

    Best thing? Creating a controversial artwork that got her kicked out of school

    Worst thing? Brought home a stray cat. No, right, not exactly BAD, but a waste of words in the book.

  4. Sorry, but I disagree about this one. One of my main characters came out as gay and pregnant at about the same time. I was so confused. I hadn’t known that was going to happen until I started typing it. But when I did it just made sense and the rest of the story fell into place after that.

  5. Best thing was jerking off into his girlfriend’s vanilla yoghurt while she went to the bathroom halfway through the breakup speech.
    Oh, hang on…. that wasn’t the character, that was me. Ummm, I’ll get back to you.

  6. I don’t know if you will believe this Betsy, or if anyone will, but my title character did indeed do something surprising. When I wasn’t even writing, just piddling around the house, half-heartedly cleaning, she appeared, fully formed, and introduced herself. She told me her story and described the people in it so completely that I felt that I knew them, as well. They, too, were three-dimensional, messy, silly, new, smelly, beautiful and real. What she told me was extraordinary and she also said that I was the one to transcribe it for her, to put it into book form. For posterity.

    Me? I just stood there, duster in hand, and shrugged, “Alrighty then.”

  7. I’m content to think that my characters spring from my subconscious, which makes them my creations under my control, but at just enough distance to keep things interesting. . . .

    Best thing? Held his dead wife in his arms instead of chasing after her killer.

    Worst thing? The same.

  8. Agreed! Sure when you’re playing around, after a while your characters will say or do anything, but when you want to get down to business, when there’s a story to be told, you’re getting that character to arc with the story. Though I fully agree with Stephen King’s analogy of the story as a fossil that is there fully formed, and you just have to chip away at it. The ideas that characters just do what they want, writing your story for you while you just hang out, is the difference between writing and hallucinating.

    Best thing my character did was show up. Worst thing? Not show up clearly enough.

  9. Cheat, but I set that up and it is kinda the thread running through the whole series. I think when people say the character says or does something on their own, they mean that the character would not say thus and such because it would be out of character and he would have to say or do thus and such cuz that is the way he was drawn. I had to change stuff a lot cuz when I slept on it I thought. No. She wouldn’t say that about it. Or she wouldn’t tolerate that or let that pass. Totally being the Master puppeteer or their God.

    And of course I make shit up. But appropriately. Anyway, my guys are real.

  10. I don’t know about the best or worst thing but I do agree that characters can sometimes surprise you. Writing comes from deep within and is only partly conscious and deliberate – of course conscious and deliberate processes are involved or no-one would ever get anything done, but it springs from sources deeper than we know – and that is why, I think, characters surprise us. If yours don’t, then they don’t. There are no universal rules…

  11. This is what I was about to write:

    I haven’t gotten there yet but I have a sneaking suspicion that my MC is going to turn out to be just like her mother and for this little girl, that’s the very worst thing that could happen.

    And then I realized, there’s no way I can let that happen. This is a YA story and I’ll be fucked if I let a story that is going to be read by millions (see, hope exists in ALL of us!) of young girls turn out to be a tragedy. I believe that the human spirit can triumph over evil and dammit, this story will attest to that.

    So, here’s my revised answer:

    My main character tells her mother to fuck off.

    • Hey Mac- a belated Happy Birthday!

      Do we triumph over evil when we resist the urge to be like those who torment us? When we scratch a line in the stone that has crushed us for so long?

      I’m an OA, not a YA, but the story sounds interesting. Good luck.

    • So does mine, girl, so does mine. Sometimes you got to jump right off that family tree.

  12. My guy did something he’d done many times before, fell off his boat, couldn’t get back on, and slipped into hypothermia. Another time he found a sunken crate of fine scotch, but couldn’t save it all because of shallow water. Now he can’t find it. He got into a fight with a young pinhead after that guy crashed his stereo thumpin’ low rider fast and furious car into Frank’s boat.
    The worst, I guess, is that he finished his novel, only had one copy of the manuscript, and his new puppy ate it, leaving evidence that he had digested it as thoroughly as any editor.

  13. Right now nothing better could happen than for my characters to write their own damn story. Unfortunately as I was lining up the puzzle pieces last night I saw that for every 6-7 scenes, one is making it into the book. Type and cut. Type and cut.
    If any of them had a view on it, I would have hoped they’d have asserted it by now.

  14. It’s like a poem; you think you’re writing one kind of poem, but as the drafts pile up you realize the energy of the poem is somewhere else entirely. And so you have to go in that direction. If you are a fiction writer this process may seem like a character sitting down mid-draft and having a full-scale meltdown.

  15. Characters do sometimes write themselves. I read of one writer who asks her characters to fill out an application to be in her book. You could always weed out the ones who want listen during the interview process.

  16. Kinda disagree, Betsy. I don’t think of the characters taking over, but another part of my brain, the really cool part. Most of the thrill for me is in the surrender to the subconscious stuff that pops ups now and again, and indeed feels like somebody else besides me has hopped into the driver’s seat. The words that appear on the page without thought, that’s the wonderous mysterious part. The rest of it is left brain stuff, the taking back of the wheel, that I enjoy in a different way, but not as much as the other.

  17. It’s a religious notion, this idea that characters write themselves. People want to think that God or a higher being is behind it. Or it could be schizophrenia.

  18. Ah, excuse me, but if your characters are acting on their own, they are not your characters, they are you. Ah hem, now that sounded high and mighty.
    Anyway, there have been times while writing, when the character, the story, or my mental-writing-illness takes over and it is as if someone else is workin’ the keyboard. Some call it “in the zone”, some call it a crap-shoot, I call it…well I don’t know what to call it, except to say it is as if someone else has taken control of what I write. It is blissful, very creative, like all my cylinders are firing at the same time. It’s what I live for.
    The sink is full of dishes, I have dog hair tumble weeds drifting across the floor when the furnace turns on, I could write the Gettysburg Address in the layer of dust on my coffee table, if I could remember it, the kitchen table is piled with my husband’s business paperwork, and the laundry needs folding. Well, okay then, it’s time to shoot crap in the zone, be blissful and crank up the cylinders, the rest can wait. The omnipotent Oz is off to writer’s heaven.

  19. I’m so in the zone I spelled my name wrong. It’s because I’m distacted by Dr. Phil on the TV. Now there’s an OZ for ya.

  20. People who say their characters surprise them or “write themselves” shouldn’t be allowed to sign their name on the books….they aren’t actually the authors, right? It was just **~magic~**.

    Tangentially: It reminds me of when someone says, “I’m humbled,” when he really means, “I’m proud.”

    It’s like congratulating the universe and yourself all at the same time. Gag.

    • I’m humbled is another one of these pseudo-religious affectations. I stand before the Great Creator! Just play it straight as Betsy once told us Abner Stein said. Say, ‘I’m honoured. Thank you.’

      • Exactly. When someone says, “I’m humbled,” I always hear the translation in my head, “I amaze myself!” Dishonest, false humility and self-congratulation all rolled up together.

        Right on, MO.

  21. I like the chess anaology and agree, being the master manipulator is what makes it fun. My story is the one thing that is completely within my control and I won’t give it away to a flippant idea that my characters figured it out for themselves.

  22. If the characters have minds of their own and are writing themselves, what the hell am I doing in this chair all damn day?

  23. I don’t know if old farting. incontinent Jimmy Page would agree, but many guitarists credit their instruments for sonic rhapsodies. Sure, they’re playing the notes, their fingers are doing the work, but would it sound the same on a brand new Strat as it would on an old, well used Les Paul? What comes out at 1am is way different than a 10am song. I agree that it comes from practice and if you don’t sit down to write, nothing is going to happen. I think writers are more than just vessels, but I understand and have experienced something just appearing at a certain place or time that changes, enhances or completes the story or a character. And I’m reluctant to examine why.

  24. I totally disagree with everyone who thinks characters don’t write themselves. I finally figured out that when I get stuck, it’s because I’m trying to get a character to go somewhere she doesn’t want to go. I back up, change course, and we’re off again. It’s why I can’t outline. I have no idea what’s coming next.

    It’s not a religious notion as Mo mentioned. I don’t think God or anyone else is behind it. Schizophrenia, maybe.

    I just grabbed one of my books from the shelf and opened to a random page. It’s the narrator’s birthday. She’s talking to her dead mother about how she’s been invited to her very Catholic friend’s

  25. P.S.
    “Beamer’s very religious. She goes to church all the time.” I don’t say which church, though. Mama was a tiny bit narrow-minded when it came to that subject. Daddy used to call her a goddamn born-again holy roller who wouldn’t know a good time if it bit her in the ass.
    I’m still walking on my father’s side of the street with that one God will have to prove that he’s really up there if he wants to get me back. When you pray and pray and pray and the bad thing still happens–well, you figure maybe the whole business is a big fat joke and you’re not going to let yourself be taken in again. So when your mother dies, you don’t say Oh, okay, I didn’t get what I wanted this time, so I’ll set my sights a little lower–a new hair dryer, maybe. You just get busy and try to make things turn out right yourself.”

    I never would have thought those things. Sometimes I’m just the scribe, or nuts.

  26. Hi Betsy
    Seems like you like to live dangerously making a bold statement like this while knowing a bunch of writers will read it;)
    Of course, we writers make up our own characters and they do exactly what we tell them, just like the puppet on the string, but what can be surprising is how the characters can develop in ways we hadn’t at first imagined or anticipated – this usually happens after a lot of hard work and sweat and toil, but not always!
    Thanks again!

  27. I’m a PR hack. I spend my days finding the words to extoll the lady who owns a hardware store in Ohio and the Process Capability Manager in New Jersey and the Short Sale Specialist named ShirLee. None of these characters write themselves, believe me.

    August: How do your half unicorn/half zombie proctologist characters write themselves? I’d like to know.

  28. “Do your characters act on their own volition?”

    No. They have no volition. They are constructs. Words on a page.

    But to say they are constructs is to imply that they are effectively assembled from without, slabs joined together or some such. They are more growths than they are assemblages.

    As a writer writes a character, the construction of the character is a matter of growth and accretion. As that process happens, it can seem the character is taking on a life of its own, since what the character may be reported as doing next has to follow believably from what the character has already done or been. But even within these constraints, there can be surprises. It’s the writer’s job to make it all work, to make the characters seem to the reader to be acting on their own volition.

  29. I think the problem is with semantics. I can understand your confusion. Sometimes I am free enough to kind of get inside a character’s head and, with that perspective, I will write the story in a way I hadn’t imagined. Do they write themselves? Nah.

    Likewise, a friend once said to me: Isn’t being a mom wonderful? And I was so confused and flabbergasted. Wonderful? No, ice cream is wonderful. Maybe a Big Mac at the right time in the right place, too.

    Try not to let these imprecise declarations of writers get you down. It’s just words trying to explain something that can’t fully be articulated.

  30. serendipity, n.

    Pronunciation: /sɛrɛnˈdɪpɪtɪ/
    Etymology: < Serendip , a former name for Sri Lanka + -ity suffix.
    A word coined by Horace Walpole, who says (Let. to Mann, 28 Jan. 1754) that he had formed it upon the title of the fairy-tale ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’, the heroes of which ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’.
    (Show Less)
    Thesaurus »

    The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery.
    Formerly rare, this word and its derivatives have had wide currency in the 20th century.

  31. Characters? I don’t think even real people have enough free will to “write” their own lives.

  32. I keep telling them to get a life. They don’t listen. I have to prod and pull and I’m wondering if I’m abusing them. Or if they are abusing me. Or if child services will come knock knock knocking on heaven’s door. The little ingrates.

  33. I’ve always found such pronouncements slightly precious. Some form of false modesty. Like you put your pen on the page and it just starts moving. The implication being that you are a conduit for the gods of creation. That being said, experience has taught me I have to whittle away my ego to get to anything that feels truly imagined…I take a lot of wrong turns narratively before I strike down a path that seems sincere.

    • Reading all these different perspectives, it appears that there’s a difference between “the characters wrote themselves,” and “something (or Someone) writing through me.” The first sounds like showing off, wanting to make the hard effort of writing look effortless (or perhaps the characters are just not very developed), while the second one is, as you say, a moving to the side of one’s limited personality to let the larger human experience shine through.

      I firmly believe in the possibility of divine transmission, but it doesn’t follow that the person doing the writing is absent from the process. You can drive a ox-drawn wagon or a camel-drawn one to the same destination, but it’s not the same experience. The animal’s way of being hugely influences the journey.

      I like the idea of reducing the ego to access the imagination. Less than the ego being whittled, though, I think it’s whatever our current conditioning is that we need to detach/distance from. Somebody’s got to remain to do the imagining. But maybe we’re saying the same thing in different ways?

      • That is very well put…….so maybe instead of saying “the characters wrote themselves,” we should be saying, “I figured it out as I went.”

      • Thank you for that Tuliasi-Priya. I especially love, “You can drive a ox-drawn wagon or a camel-drawn one to the same destination, but it’s not the same experience. The animal’s way of being hugely influences the journey.”

  34. I think what writers really mean by this is that when you’re laying out the plot, it’s easy to miscalculate because you don’t yet know your character well enough to decide what he or she might do in a particular situation. In other words, you reach a scene in which you had intended for your character to do or say a certain thing, but now that you’re deep inside it you realize it wouldn’t be consistent with the character’s personality. And of course, you don’t want to force that, because if it feels unnatural to you, it will feel unnatural to the reader.

  35. I still haven’t made up my mind about this one. Sometimes the things I’ve planned to happen just don’t ring true, and the actions I’ve arranged for my characters to take strike me as false, so I have to rethink them. Although I’m pretty sure I’M doing that and not them, I believe in them so much, I wonder if they aren’t giving me a hand. I’m just glad when, after for the umpteenth edit, I find my characters NOT doing things they have no business doing.

  36. My ballot is against the idea that characters write themselves; never found any revisions or completed chapters while I was away from my WIP! I do become attached to them, though, and was depressed for several days when I realized the best destiny for one character was an unpleasant death.

  37. My characters do not act of their volition. I wish they would. The SOBs make me work. I’m talkin’ ass in chair, fingers poised at computer to write, cut, rewrite and revise. What’s wrong with me?

  38. Why is there a different CTA on my yahoo msg and my google msg?

    • What’s the best or worst thing your main character ever did whether or not of his own volition?

      • Yes, what’s the deal ? Looks like Betsy didn’t get to do enough editing at work and took it out on this post. The bit about the best or worst thing your character did is gone.
        Or maybe it wasn’t Betsy. Maybe it was a character in her blog, acting on their own volition…

  39. After reading everybody’s answers, I’m more confused than ever.
    Just one question.
    If some of your characters do stuff by themselves, those ones are real I guess. And if the others don’t do that, then they are you, the writer. So if one of the ones who are you kills one of the real ones, should you be charged with murder ?

  40. I hear writers say this all the time – that their characters take over the story. Perhaps I’m too regimented but that always baffles me. I write from an outline. I could (and have) even write chapters out of sequence if I wanted to. Characters do what I tell them to do, say words that I put into their mouths.

  41. This is a really really good post. I often wonder what is really happening when I am writing something new – the part I love. I get so excited. I love making it all up, letting it bubble. You’re right it’s not a surrendering of the reigns, but a heightened and clean awareness. Fun.
    I have no idea about crazy things my characters do. One walked into a freezing lake and died and I felt evil then.

  42. No, my characters do not act on their own volitiion. They are all co-dependent. That’s what makes them interesting. I learned this technique from Elmore Leonard.

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