By Jonathunder via Wikimedia Commons
I admire writers who plot and plan and claim complete control over their work and still produce believable, realistic characters and situations. It’s not a way I’ve ever operated with my fiction. Things such as academic articles or commercial presentations have to be carefully structured, so organising the material before you link it all together is essential. But, in fiction, if you set restraints on your characters before you even let them loose, it seems to me that you prevent them becoming who they are. I have no idea why fictional characters seem to have an existence independent of the person who created them, but they do. A writer on a panel I chaired once summed it up by saying ‘You have to give your characters room to dance’.

I’m not suggesting that novels are actually written by the characters. You need to know where they’re going, what their role in the overall scheme is, the points at which they’re going to clash or combine to build the narrative, so you manipulate them into the contexts you need. But, once there, they may come up with things which seem to come from them rather than from you. A particularly nasty policeman in one of my novels was angry after getting a bollocking from his boss. To my surprise, he went back to his office, reached for the bottom drawer of his desk and took out an iron bar which he kept there to vent his frustrations. He then bent and straightened it until he felt better.

But the reason I’m writing this is that what started as a way of avoiding writing a blog has rebounded on me. Back in February, instead of writing something new, I posted the opening of a romantic parody I’d written a while ago. It was supposed to be a self-contained thing which was just a spoof of the genre (and, before fans of romance complain, I should say that I write parodies of all sorts of genres, and they’re aimed at making readers laugh, not at undermining their targets). But a couple of friends wanted to know what happened next.
It seemed an enjoyable way to write another blog so in March I developed the scene a little further, whereupon other friends wanted yet more. Indeed, Griselda commented that she felt 'TOTALLY caught up in Letitia's romantic imaginings', and Umberto 'couldn't wait for Leticia's next move' - which was very flattering and gratifying.
But the really strange thing is that I, too, started wondering what might happen next. The characters, who started as stereotypes, had become themselves and they’re drawing me back to them, almost demanding my attention. It’s as if they resent being left in suspension. I suppose it would be easy to write a third, concluding instalment which resolved all the issues - just to get rid of them. But I suspect that they wouldn’t be satisfied with that. They’ve started to let me see who they are, they’ve got attitudes, hopes, inner conflicts.
Damn them. They had no right to have all those. They were gags, puppets, elements I was going to manipulate to get a few laughs. How weird to think I’m a sort of social worker, with responsibilities to these figments of my (and the readers’) imaginations. But that’s how it feels.

Of course, the feeling is multiplied several-fold when it's a 'real' novel. I had to write six different endings to The Likeness, for example, before my female lead was satisfied with how various dilemmas were resolved. She wasn't being a Prima Donna, she was just being herself. And she knew what readers wanted.


Fran B said…
I love that facet of novel writing. I've had walk-on parts turn into main characters and vice versa. It a kind of magic!
Jan Needle said…
In one of my favourite Marcel Ayme stories there is a famous novelist who has the egregious habit of killing off his characters, however hard he tries to keep them alive, and however many pleading letters he gets from his fans to spare them. One evening, as he sits writing, there is a knock at his door. It is a beautiful young woman - his latest heroine - who can see which way the book is going, and has come to plead for her life. It is the novelist's nightmare - the dichotomy between artistic integrity and keeping the bucks rolling in. I feel for you, Bill...
julia jones said…
Entirely agree about your responsibility to your characters and hope that this was a shorter than usual blog because you need the keyboard time for the next instalment(s) Never make light of parody - (you wouldn't, I know) - but maybe you were tempted... and here are your characters getting their revenge
Umberto Tosi said…
Glad that my little poke helped inspire you to continue with Leticia! I look forward to finding out wherever she takes you now. Meanwhile, thanks for revealing your disdain for nailing nailing plots down before you embark on a narrative - giving characters room to "dance." I've never been good at outlining and otherwise pre-structuring, but always a bit unsure that winging it with my characters will lead anywhere productive either. Hail to those of us who jump and fly, and risk falling down occasionally, for they will be rewarded.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, All. I'm glad to find that i'm not alone in acting in such a seemingly unprofessional manner. Jan, I love the idea of actually being visited by one of my characters, preferably one I've fallen in love with.
Umberto, just for you, I'll have to revisit that log cabin and have a word with Letitia.
Alex Marchant said…
Thank goodness - I had been beginning to think it was just me... Yes, I have had to plan and structure my two most recent books (they're historical fiction and I'm aiming to tell the real events as accurately as possible - given the usual constraints of conflicting sources, etc.), but despite that my characters have continually surprised me - one minor character elbowing his way into a more major role, a major character springing entire new scenes on me and revealing a side to himself I wasn't expecting at all. Some do it far more than others - some don't do it at all, being terribly well behaved. Or at least so I thought - until my recent redrafting of the final scene, when one particular character simply did her own thing for the very first time, out of the blue. And I have to say - they seem to get it right!
Anonymous said…
Belatedly catching up here - torn between a twinge of guilt that my enthusiasm is foisting writing on you that you hadn’t bargained for, and much bigger delight that there will be more of Letitia and her swain at some point. Hurrah!

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