Tuesday, February 21, 2017

When Characters Won't Behave

Some writers feel that their characters are autonomous; they speak and act on their own, and the author just follows them around and writes things down.

I'm not one of them.

Yes, your characters have to seem to be autonomous. Your characters have to seem to speak and act spontaneously, out of their own inner realities. But I see myself as more of a director than a biographer.

If I need for a character to say something or do something and the character -- in my imagination, now, they don't actually speak to me; I may be odd, but I'm not a practitioner of alternate sanity .... I lost my place. Oh, yeah: If I need for a character to say something or do something and the character is all like, "I just don't feel that. What's my motivation?" then I'm all like, "Fair enough. Let's talk about that."

See, I don't like pushy characters (with the obvious exception of Bud Blossom), but I don't like sock puppets, either: characters who obviously speak and act at the writer's will. You know the kind where you go, "I can see why the author wanted her to steal the secret code and plans, but I don't understand why she wanted to."

So, when characters don't want to say or do what you want them to, you have choices:
  • Give 'em their heads and see where they take you
  • Get out the cattle prod and herd 'em back in line
  • Sit down with 'em and yak around until you come up with reasons that make sense in their contexts
  • Get all evil wit' it and plant false memories so they believe they have motive.
By which I actually mean, tweak their backstory. That's one reason I like to leave backstory a bit vague, so I can fill it in as I need it. Also lazy.

CHARACTER: "But I'm not afraid of dogs! I love dogs!"

ME: "You don't love ... um ... red dogs. Yeah, see this dog is red. 'Member when that red dog knocked you down and bit you on the chin when you were two?"

CHARACTER: "...No, I don't."

ME: "Blocked it out. That's how traumatic it was."

CHARACTER: "Oh, yeah. Big red dogs. I always cried when the teacher read a CLIFFORD book."

ME: "Right. Right. So sad. Poor baby. Ready for the scene, now?"

Some writers work out the backstory, characters, and plotlines ahead of time, so they don't run into this sort of thing. Me, that much planning doesn't work for. Neither does just going with the flow. Not a plotter, not a pantser, I call myself a panther. I outline enough to get me through the story, but leave things loosey-goosey enough that, if something more interesting than what I have planned comes along, I can pounce on it like a hungry panther.

Oh, and Bud? It's the cattle prod and the cow dogs for Bud. YES, I'M TALKING ABOUT YOU AGAIN. YOU ALWAYS MANAGE, DON'T YOU?

~sigh~ It isn't easy being me.

Marian Allen, Author Lady
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

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