Let Your Characters Write The Story

Sometimes creating a novel is more frustrating than chopping wood with the blunt side of an ax.

  • You don’t have any ideas.
  • You do have ideas, but they bunny trail someplace you never meant to go.
  • You’re charging along and then–boom!–writer’s block.
  • You have tons of ideas; you write furiously; you read it the next day and hate everything you penned.

What a lot of heartache. Wouldn’t it be awesome if your story just wrote itself?

That’s what this month’s clinic here at Indie Plot Twist is all about. Wednesdays in June, we’re going to talk about sitting back, relaxing, and letting your characters do all the hard work. (Okay, they won’t do your marketing and promo for you …)

Writing a Novel Is Too Much Work

I can stare at a blank page until my computer screen and I are both crying. I eventually discovered that writing fiction was so hard, I quit. That’s right. I don’t write fiction anymore.

Yet I have twenty-some stories in various stages of completion and plan to independently publish my first novel early next year.

And you’re like, Huh?

I repeat, emphatically, that I have retired from being a novelist. Now I’m a ghost writer. I write biographies about fictional people.

A young woman–fifteen, sixteen–walks into my office. She didn’t knock. They never do. Just sort of materialize through the walls like a movie effect. I’m not surprised. I’m used to it by now.

The girl, on the other hand, glances uncertainly around my thimble of a bedroom-slash-office. Far from a professional setting, it still has a favorite childhood doll in one corner, a banjo against the wall, and books spilling out of the book case and across the floor. She double-checks a scrap of paper in her hand.

“You’ve got the right address,” I assure her.

“Um … Ian said I should talk to you?” She says it like a question.

I raise an eyebrow and smile. “You know Ian?” One of my longest-standing clients. He hired me to write his multi-volume biography (what novelists would call a series) back when I was practically just a kid. In a lot of ways, he started my career. In essence, he impressed upon me the futility of my dream to become a novelist and convinced me I would do far better ghost writing biographies of fictional people.

I motion to my bed. (I don’t have a second chair.) “Why don’t you sit down and tell me your story?”

And thus begins the first of many appointments with my new client. Over the next weeks, months, and (in her case) years, she will tell me her story, and I will put it into words.

Fictional Ghostwriting Clients–a.k.a. Characters Run Amok

Okay, no, my characters don’t materialize before me. But almost every author knows what it’s like to have a character “run away with the story” now and again. Their antics are usually met with alarm and end in a scolding–though we may occasionally allow that their diversion from the plan was, possibly, a stroke of genius.

I’m such a bad writer myself, I eventually concluded that everything a character does without my consent is genius–and everything I do without their  consent is a waste of word count. As such, I prefer to let the characters run away with the whole  story, starting with “once upon a time,” and finishing with “the end.”

After all, who knows the story better than the characters themselves?

The question that naturally follows is, How do I listen to my characters? In practical terms, how do I let them write the story?

Write this on a sticky note and post it on your computer screen. This is my four-step process to letting the characters write the story for me, and we’re going to be exploring it in detail during the next three blog posts in this series.

  1. Get a story started. Any way. Any how.
  2. As soon as your first character shows up, resist the urge to create his story for him.
  3. Listen to your deepest instincts, guided by everything you know to be true about the character, and let those instincts guide all your decisions.
  4. Put all your instincts through a trial period to make sure it really is the character talking and not, in fact, you dominating his story.

I know. Clear as mud. Like I said, we’re going to explore those steps in detail over the next three blog posts in this series.

Plot-Driven and Character-Driven

A lot of writers will identify themselves as either plot-driven or character-driven.

  • Plot-driven: the author tends to think in terms of what happens in the story
  • Character-driven: the author tends to think in terms of who does things in the story.

I firmly belong in the second camp. (As if you couldn’t tell by now.) As such, a lot of what I say in this series (Wednesdays in June) is going to resonate best with other character-driven authors.

But on a real level, this series isn’t about character-driven writing so much as it’s about writing from your subconscious rather than your conscious. I’m sure plot-driven writers will find something of interest here, with only a bit of tweaking.

Homework Assignment

  • Was there a time when your characters ran away with the story and you couldn’t quit thanking them for it? Tell us about it here in the comments.

I know. That’s not really a homework assignment. But this lesson was more of an introduction. Next week begins the first real lesson when we’ll talk about how to listen to your characters and put your own urge to write the story on hold. I hope you’ll join us! If you don’t want to miss out on class, you’re welcome to subscribe.

Until next week, happy writing!

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