Writing Fiction: To Thine Own Character Be True

characters hamlet-62850_960_720I don’t know about anyone else’s process, but I’m a pantser, so when I start writing a new novel, I have a few ideas about where it’s going, but it’s not all planned out by any means. That includes the characters. Generally I will start with a few bullet points of the action, the twists and turns of the story, but the characters often are close to a blank slate at the first. They always evolve as I write, some faster than others. And they very often surprise me.

A while back I read Stephen King’s On Writing (yes, I know, I’m probably the last person on the planet to read it), and he talked quite a bit about being true to the characters. At one point, he described his process like this:

I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety—those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot—but to watch what happens and then write it down.

I realized that I work in a similar fashion, although I had never thought of it that way. I do put my characters into a situation, and I do watch to see how they’ll respond and what they’ll do. I often will let alternatives reel out in my mind, i.e. if my character does this, then this will happen, then that, and so forth. If that doesn’t ring true, if it seems out of character or jarring, I’ll pull back to the initial set-up and let a different scenario play out in my mind. If my character does that, then this will happen, etc. I know now that my process is not so much one of creation as one of elimination — I eliminate all the courses of action that my character would not take, and then I am left with the one course of action that s/he would take and that is true to his/her personality.

King continues:

The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way.

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I’ve had this come up for me in spades in the last year. I was writing a novel about reincarnation, and the main character (MC) comes face to face with a lover from a past life. I had fully intended from the very first that the MC and the past-life lover would sleep together, although I wasn’t quite sure what would happen to the relationship after that. Imagine my surprise when I got to the part where the sexual encounter was possible and even obvious, and the MC shocked the crap out of me by declining. I tried to rework it in my mind over and over, but there was just no way my MC was going to do this. I finally had to accede to his wishes and let him bow out gracefully. Forcing him into my plot line would be a howling mistake. I could only imagine all my readers, in unison, saying, “HUH?”

I have to admit, there’s some satisfaction in knowing that I share these sorts of experiences with King:

In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected.

There was a point in time when I thought this unexpected independence from my characters was an oddity, a rare thing that just popped up from time to time. As time goes on, though, I realize this is the writer’s version of being “in the zone.” More and more now as I write, I don’t decide ahead of time what my characters are going to do. As King said above, I just watch them and write down what they do. He also says…

… if you do your job, your characters will come to life and start doing stuff on their own. I know that sounds a little creepy if you haven’t actually experienced it, but it’s terrific fun when it happens.

Not only fun but true. Authentic. Unplotted. Real. And isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? Aren’t we all trying to tell our stories as authentically as possible? There’s no point, in my stories, where I want the reader to stop, sit up, and say, “That wouldn’t happen!” I want them to keep reading, clear to the end, stay immersed, stay suspended in the story and the characters until there are no more words left to read. They can only do that if the story feels real.

Finally King says something that I’ve discovered to seem very odd to non-writers:

When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write…wrapped within it… is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around.

I actually started to write one book as a light comedy and it turned into a very dark and moody drama. My own husband asks me, “How can that happen? You’re the one writing the book!” More often, I think, if I’m doing it right, the book is writing itself. And King agrees:

… I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. .. I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow…


Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

25 thoughts on “Writing Fiction: To Thine Own Character Be True”

  1. This is an excellent commentary, Melissa.

    Like you, I write intuitively–in my case, no notes, no outlines, no nothin’ but a blank Word “page”. I simply go to Page One, lay down a scene/situation, and let the story unfold as I, the observer/narrator, watch the characters help me tell the story. It’s gotten to bad (good?) at times that I’ve actually found myself laughing at the dialogue, wondering from where the words came. Other times I have sat there, scratching my head and wondering “How the hell did we get into thismess?”

    As you wrote, characters can and will take on lives of their own. This is especially true in the case of a series, where they almost become like family. In the case of my Det. Louis Martelli, NYPD, series, some characters actually are family. Two strong, female characters are based on my daughters, which has given me the wonderful opportunity to inject their speech mannerisms, senses of humor, and sarcasm into all of the stories.

    King’s book, of course, is a MUST read for any writer. Thanks for bringing it up today. And all good wishes for continued success.

  2. Thanks, Theodore; sounds like you and I are on the same page. I’m also writing a series, and now that I’m on book 12, my characters are so completely formed, I have very little difficulty knowing what they will do in the situations I concoct. I still go thru the same process, reeling out an optional scenario, trying another if that doesn’t work, but it’s much easier now. And yes, they are definitely friends. I love that I get to visit them over and over. Thanks for commenting.

  3. With you on this one, Melissa. If I had to plot a novel, I don’t think I would write. The fun is in seeing where the ideas and the characters (once they present themselves) take me. I’m often surprised, sometimes horrified by the direction they are going in but I’ve learned that if I try to stop them the page will stay blank or be rewritten so many times that eventually I have to give in. I write mystery/suspense and I hope that if I am surprised by what happens next then the reader will be too!

  4. I’m with you, Mel. I put down about 5 bullet points when I start out, no more, and even then I don’t always use them. If I had to plot out a whole book, I’d be completely stonewalled by it. And I agree totally–if my characters surprise me, I’m sure they’ll surprise my readers. Can’t ask for more than that.

  5. Hey Melissa,

    I find that I work in a similar way when writing fiction, let the characters write themselves out of situations they find themselves in. But of course having characters in your life helps me tremendously making parts of them come to life on paper!

    Great read

  6. Great article! I’m a non fiction writer and often thought I would love to try fiction but find it daunting! I can make up stories for kids as I go along, never knowing how it ends, and am wondering whether it’s the same process. I’m ready to try fiction based on something that really happened. Will that work?

    1. Ester, go for it! You can absolutely fictionalize a real event, and the great thing about writing fiction is that if you write yourself into a corner, you can always rewrite to get yourself out of it, something a little more difficult when you’re spinning tales to a live audience. Kids don’t let you get away with anything!

    2. Ester, almost all of my books are “faction” (fact + fiction)…in fact, I mix the two in such a way that even my somewhat fictionalized autobiography had them so entwined that my family couldn’t unravel the two. (I always wanted to play the violin in the way I did in that book; the performances were better than they were in real life.)

      I agree. Go for it!

  7. I don’t think it matters how much planning you do or don’t do for your characters. The process of writing a novel is the process of working with the characters, and their development in the writing sense as the novel progresses becomes their development as people for the reader as the reading progresses.
    Put another way, the reason your article strikes a chord with so many people is that pretty well everyone creates characters in the way you describe. It’s basic to the art.

    1. Do you think it’s the same for people who plot and outline to the nth degree? I’ve never outlined, never set out my chapters ahead of time, and can’t imagine trying to. I just wonder if writers who do that stay true to their outline when their characters start to wander off into the weeds.

    2. “It’s basic to the art.”

      Ah, therein lies the rub. It IS an art. It takes time to develop, and some never achieve even a modicum of success.

      So, the novice writer, with little in the way of background, will at first present “cardboard” figures, describing them in great detail, leaving nothing to the imagination, presenting every manner of description until the poor reader is ready to tear their hair out. We’ve all seen (read) it.

      It takes skill to develop characters, to provide just the “right” amount of information about them (and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination), and importantly, to age the characters as a series develops. Adults mature in their thinking; children age and mature as well. People and animals die; characters mourn. Good characters turn bad; bad characters turn good (or attempt to).

      People are complex. As you said, when it comes to developing characters, it’s basic to the art.

      1. Couldn’t agree more, Josiah. I’ve written before about how writing is a balancing act–revealing enough, but not too much. Many newbies think they must put on the page everything that’s in their head, but we eventually learn (I hope) that less is more. That’s the dance, the conversation, with our readers: we give them tidbits, distinguishing traits or habits, and they fill in the rest. Yes, it’s definitely an art, no matter how stringently some try to codify or regulate it. It’s creation at its finest.

  8. ‘I eliminate all the courses of action that my character would not take’.
    Multiply that by XX number of characters, and the plot grows organically. By contrast, when I have tried to force something to happen, I eventually write myself into a dead-end. I used to call it ‘writer’s block’, but I now know that it’s simply my sub-conscious trying to make me see that something, somewhere doesn’t /work/, that some character simply would not do that.
    The downside of writing in such an organic fashion is that you mustn’t be afraid to re-write and re-structure when necessary.

    1. True enough. Just a couple days ago, I had to strike several pages because it was taking me into a dead end. Hated losing that time, but it just didn’t work, and the story comes first before anything I want. Took me years to figure that out, though. Thanks for commenting.

  9. To any writer who says they have their stories all planned out by the time they plant themselves into their ergonomically-designed office chair, I have time-shares in a Tijuana ski resort I’d love to sell them. I can’t recount the number of times I’ve seen writers depicted (in the past) on TV and in movies who suddenly have an idea and immediately start slaving away over their typewriters. That only proves Hollywood rarely gets it right when it comes to writers – as is evident by the number of times union writers have had to go on strike.

    By the same token, I can’t tell you the number of times a story idea has popped into my head, which prompts me to start writing immediately; usually with a pencil on an actual sheet of paper. If I’m lucky, I’ll have my computer on and can immediately create a new Word document for it, or more likely, add it to my growing list of “story ideas.”

    Writing is like any art: one can and must plan for it. But it’s so incredibly personal and fluid we have to understand from the beginning it will most likely change as time progresses. That’s the beauty of it. Unlike many other tasks, it doesn’t have to be carved into wet cement perfectly from the start and left to dry into its final, flawless form. It really just can’t. That’s also why artists often seem hyper-emotional and / or schizophrenic.

    Now, as for that ski resort…

  10. Pretty much how I write. I might have a basic outline, some character sketches, and a general idea where I’d like the story to go. And then I start writing and see where it takes me. On the current WIP, I had a character “hijack” much of the book (Okay, he’s an important character, but not the only one!) so I had to dial him back a little and give his character more time to develop, rather than dump everything on the reader at once (as he was wanting me to do). It’s going to be a LONG book, but so far, my beta reader is hanging on every chapter I send him, so that tells me it’s going the right direction. And there’ve been plenty of times my characters surprised me by not wanting to do what I had in mind- it’s just not in their character, and to force them, would make the book untrue to who they are. And yes, non-writers can’t understand this.

  11. I am the opposite. I am a plotter. For me, the characters are the ones who make the story happen. They are in the story in order to do their duty, so their personalities are chosen so as to do what they should do (willingly or reluctantly, deliberately or by mistake). I keep them true to the story, and in this way true to themselves, because that is their role in the story.

    1. Interesting, Marina. I can’t quite wrap my head around that process, but if it works for you, great. Obviously it takes all kinds of minds and all kinds of processes, to write.

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