Saturday, February 16, 2013

Let the characters write that novel? That's crazy!

Ahnak: Edelin's Revelation, book three of The Land of Betrovia trilogy, is nearly drafted. Drafted, but nowhere near being done. When I said this to one of Betrovia's loyal readers (who, by the way, is also a loyal MFA 280 customer), she replied with a sad sigh. Yes, the structure is there, for the most part, the outline has been followed, not as a whole but pretty close, and the cover is basically finalized (yeah, right!)

So why do i still feel so frustrated with the process? Isn't that what I did as I wrote the first two books? Construct outline, write a few chapters, refer to outline, write a few more chapters, wash-rinse-repeat, right?

But I wonder ... how are some Writers Cafe novelists dealing with their process?

"Letting my characters write the novel is a new and exciting concept for me. I've always heard that you should develop your characters first and simply arrange the situations for them to live in. This has made my writing so much easier. Gone are the days of structure and planning and streamlining my books to cater to the plot. Now my characters are REAL and they decide what happens!"

"I'm such a huge believer in doing whatever works for you and taking all writing advice with a grain of salt. I tend to let my characters take the lead. Even when I flesh them out first and write an outline (which I do maybe around draft 3, since my first draft is almost always an exploratory draft), I find they do things I didn't plan or do the opposite of what I'd planned and it works out for the best. It can be so much fun to sit there and go 'HOW DID YOU DO THAT. I told you to do the other thing and you are acting on your own.' LOL."

"AHAHAHHA I thought I was the only one who constantly yelled at her characters for having a mind of their own. Dang those unruly little rebels! However, have to love them for creating the story for me!"

"I'm actually trying to move away from this concept. It works well for me, but it makes it darn hard to work out a plot. I'd like to learn some kind of happy medium where I can loosely plan out a few things to have enough structure, but make the characters still seem real. My story craft will be a lot better if I can master some modicum of planning. Either way, characters still need a certain degree of freedom just for the sake of dialogue. The freer they are, the more interesting they are. And a good writer has to be able to listen to their characters, I think, so they can adapt if a character's nature is pulling them too far off the story arc. If the character has to be changed to make their actions make sense, the author needs to know that before the book gets published, so readers don't think they were just shoehorned into a particular action."

"Once upon a time I planned the whole book, prepared all the details about the plot and everything... Then my characters laughed in my face. My characters always do what they want. It's annoying sometimes."

"Before writing I think up my characters, they live in my head for a while before I start asking them what happened during the time span I plan to write my book on. Usually I already have a couple of ideas for where the story will be going and I apply them to it. Then I just keep asking questions so that I've got a broad idea for what is going to happen. I write out the time span for everything and after that all bets are off. My characters can do whatever they like as long as they stay within the structure of the few (usually up to 3 to 5 for a 30 K book) plot points I've got. Quite often they are simple points. First kiss, they fight, X confronts Y. So setting is often not a set thing."

"No one way works for everyone, but as it happens, this is my way too. The first time I realized that my characters were in charge, I wrote a threesome for Gene.  He was happy about and had a lot of fun, but by the next day, I was in BIG trouble.  Estelle was hurt that Gene enjoyed that threeway so much (even though they were common in their world), so then Gene was mad at me for hurting her feelings. Nobody would talk to me for three days. Finally, I had to delete it and give it to someone else before I could move on. Once I did that, they all forgave me and we went on to finish that book and (so far), three more. I learned my lesson."

"I try to write the beginning and end myself before the characters rebel and take over. That way I sort of know where we're all going, and then I allow myself to sit back (I don't always have great posture at the keyboard) and enjoy the ride. 0;)"

"Little bit of outlining, little bit of character sketching, then off to the races I go. That seems to be working for me. Although, there have been times I felt my characters were ready to hire a ghost writer rather than sitting around waiting for me to get on with the job. Feisty little buggers. Sometimes they really do need to be kept in check."

"Letting the characters take over seems to be the norm, not the exception. I think this style is also genre-dependent. For example, you can't write a historical fiction without some serious structure, research and planning. But for horrors and thrillers? Sit back and let the book discover itself."

"LOL glad I'm not the only one with this problem. Characters can be so infuriating sometimes! A few are quiet and submissive, but some are downright out of control! But, most of the time they end up teaching you something about your own book you never even knew, so it works out. Sometimes, however, you have to use your shepherd's crook to keep them in line. It's all about balance for your book."

"I was just wondering how well books do when authors do no plotting and just follow where their characters lead. How hard is it to edit such books? I daydream my plot and then outline before writing. When I begin writing, I do not stick to the outline but go where the story takes me. Ultimately, though, I have a goal in mind."

"You're giving freer reign to your right brain. At least that's what the prof who taught the creativity class I had many years back would say. Your brain's left hemisphere, being the lineal, logical, plotter, is the opposite of the free-wheeling right side. Every time I try to plot and plan, it all goes out the window in the end anyhow. Best case scenario: strike a balance. That way, serendipity plays a part in creating surprises, but those surprises advance plot/story rather than create plot or theme inconsistencies. Sorry, didn't mean for this to come off like a lecture."

"I charge headfirst into the story. The healthy research comes later to flesh it out. Drama is the main part of my historical fiction. My characters are fictional, not real people from history. The backdrop is historical fiction. For instance, in the first 2 books it's nineteenth century France and the bohemian art era of Impressionism is in full swing. The main story can be written without much knowledge. Then I did one hell of a lot of research to make it sing. Much more time was spent on that than the story itself. The story poured out. The research? Not so much. It can out slowly through lots of work. I will agree that if I was writing about actual people (like Caesar) I would need to do research first. Historical Fiction can take many shapes. Sometimes, the characters are not historical but the environment is. You can't group all historical fiction together. My writiing of the story is seat of the pants. My characters dictacte what happens. I love when a new character pops up or a new situation. For instasnce, I had no idea gangsters and speakeasies would be part of book 3. Tristan Michel must have, though, cuz he sure led me there.  As it typed out, sometimes I looked up things, but most times I told it and then filled it out with facts, etc. Same with book 4."

"The first time I let my characters completely tell the story, I ended up writing an 80k novel in 5 weeks! While studying full time, mind. Things tend to go a lot quicker and smoother when I let them do all the storytelling. Right now, I'm 50/50 but would like to get back to putting them in charge. This also makes the writing process much more fun, I've found, because I don't know what wacky things they're going to get up to next. In that respect I become the reader, and I love that."

"I think one of the hardest things to determine definitively is what the secondary characters want. Everyone pretty much gets the protag and antag defined fairly early on, but the secondary characters in my case are blank slates. Until I figure out what they want, I can't know what they'd do in a given situation based on their background, education, pressures, etc... But, once I have those things established, in order to stay in character, they WILL do whatever they want. And if I want them to do someth9ing else, I have to change on of those character traits I'd established, and it's a long process of going back and changing stuff throughout the book, so it's easier to let them do whatever the hell they want, and deal with it."

"I think it's very important to know your characters. Very important. I don't actually do full-out interviews with them like I've seen some people do, but I always know all my main and secondary characters' GMCs before I can get anything done. (And it's probably why I love series -- 3 books in, I know these characters pretty darn well.) But I think it's important to note that there is no one process that works for everyone. Some people swear by writing from the seat of their pants and just letting their characters do as they will. Others will write utter hot messes that can't be salvaged when that's the case. I write mysteries. Thus, I plot. It might be possible not to plot and still write a satisfying mystery, but darned if I can figure out how to do that. Not to mention I can write so much faster and actually FINISH a manuscript when I have the plot ahead of time. If I just write from the seat of my pants, I get nothing done. Either I'll write utter drivel that has nothing to do with anything or I just stare at my cursor petrified. But just because I plot doesn't mean that I don't let my characters dictate. It's not that I let them do whatever they want, it's that I know my characters, so I never do anything that isn't consistent with their needs/wants/personalities. And I can still do that within the confines of a plot. Does that mean I never deviate? Of course not. My plots aren't air-tight. They're more an outline with a list of bullet points that have to happen to get from Point A to Point Z. But the subpoints between A and B or B and C or C and D -- that can be done on the whim while I'm writing."


  1. I plan a few scenes ahead, have vague points to write toward, and a few end goals in mind. Then I sit down and let the characters (including villains) take over. When I get to the end of my few-scenes-ahead plan, I plot out the next few. That way I balance the organic writing with the more structured plot and craft elements necessary to make a good story.

  2. Hello Rachel!

    I think your process is good! But I still like to have the "end" of the story in front of me as I work on everything leading up to it.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blogpost!

  3. I like to have an outline, more so I don't write a novel that has over 95k words. If I don't have somewhat of a starting middle and ending point, I'll end up with a story I can't afford to print.

    That said with the outline comes constant changing, and my outlines are very vague, some scenes may say, something needs to happen here, or the plot should be rising from this chapter. Angel and Charlie always has something that throws me for a loop.

    People that are not writers may never understand what it means to say . . . I just write the first line and my characters do the rest, but if you allow them the space to move around, they will do most of the hard word for you. :)

  4. Hey there Samantha!

    The outline for the Betrovia trilogy hasn't changed much in the last year ... except for the ending, that is! And as I plan for a few Betrovia spin-offs, the outlines for those are basically "note drafts" that are in sequential order. But I still like to "know" how the story ends before I flesh it out too much!