Risky Regencies

Characters Take Over

Deadline status–The book is turned in, yay! I celebrated by spending all day Sunday sitting around and–gasp!–reading a romance novel and eating leftover Halloween candy. It was wonderful. Now onto the next project.

In the meantime, what with this just-finished book and various projects in various stages, I’ve been thinking a lot about characters. A few weeks ago I blogged about a book I was reading called Sixpence House by Paul Collins, where he talked about his family’s move to Hay-on-Wye, “the town of books.” In one chapter he talks about a trend in the 1920s for books supposedly “written” by a Puritan woman named Patience Worth via Ouija boards, but actually written by a very sneaky man named Casper Yost. Collins writes, “Yost rightly sensed that many people are partial to the notion that, like St. Louis housewives with Ouija boards, all writers are somehow mere vessels for Truth and Beauty when they compose. That we are not really in control. This is a variation on that twee little fable that writers like to pass off on gullible readers, that a character can develop a will of his own and “take over a book.” This makes writing sound supernatural and mysterious, like possession by the fairies. The reality tends to involve a spare room, a pirated copy of MS Word, and a table bought on sale at Target. A character can no more take over your novel than an eggplant and a jar of cumin can take over your kitchen.”

Well, of course this is technically true. I have never had a character barge into my writing space and snatch the keyboard out of my hands to write the story themselves. I wish they would. I also think it would be kinda fun if the fairies burst in and gave me some help here. (I also wish the eggplant and cumin would take over my kitchen so I don’t have to make dinner myself!). Yet there are definitely times when I feel I am not completely in charge of the story. As the creator of the tale, I can make the characters do what I want–in theory. In fact, if they don’t like where I am taking them they often make the story stall. It won’t move forward no matter what I try. They’re like stubborn toddlers who sit down in the middle of Target and start shrieking because they don’t like where things are going. Once I figure out how exactly I am going against their characters, how the story is being forced on them, things usually start moving again. The characters always take precedence over the plot–it’s their natures that make the plot move, at least for me. In that way they do take over the story, but I still have to be the one to do the hard work while they’re running around having adventures and falling in love.

Secondary characters do this, too. In the book I just finished, Duchess of Sin, there were 2 romances in addition to the main one of Anna Blacknall and Conlan McTeer. One was just a beginning–it continues in book 3, Lady of Seduction, but the other played out in its entirety here. And those two really, really wanted more time! I think Harlequin has the right idea with their “Undone” stories–they’re often connected to a longer book, and are a great way to give fascinating secondary characters their due. I can placate them with that, and they leave the main narrative alone. Same with characters who get their own full-length book. But what about when they are just meant to be supporting characters for this one story, and still insist on being scene-stealers???

When I’m working on a book, these characters do tend to run my life. I have conversations with them (out loud!) in the car, and forget to buy bread at the grocery store because I’m arguing with them about a plot twist. Then they are sent off to my editor’s desk and a new set of stubborn people move in. It’s wonderful, really.

Do your characters take over your life? What makes a memorable, realistic character to you? And are you as hungry for eggplant parmesan as I am???

(BTW, on Wednesday and again on Sunday I’ll be at Unusual Historicals, with excerpts and interviews on The Winter Queen, with one more chance to win a signed copy. And on the 5th I’ll be reading from TWQ on Blog Talk radio at 12 pm CST!)

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13 years ago

That happened to me! Exactly. Characters do take over the story. I mean they have to if you’ve written them well.

I had a real unusual one happen though. It’s in a sci-fi I published (Rebellion on Piza 7, feel free to buy LOL).

My main character was watching a scene of betrayal in the making and a character popped up. She has psychic abilities and theoretically should have been able to “see” this guy. Nope. Didn’t happen. This nobody character who was supposed to be a fill in that would die in the big battle took over!

He turns out not to be one of the bad guys and he’s finally revealed! But nothing I could do to manipulate him would get him to reveal himself to her. All she knew was his voice. Now, in the sequel, he’s the queen’s right hand man and becomes her consort.

Funny how characters work…

Julia Justiss
Julia Justiss
13 years ago

I agree, Ammanda, characters are the heart of the story. I don’t do “interviews” with them, as some writer friends do and I don’t think I’ve argued out loud with any, but they do keep moving in directions I hadn’t anticipated. The heroine from the current wip is one of those: I thought she would be a fairly self-centered, semi-airhead beauty who only wanted to escape her boring home in the country, go to London, have a brilliant season and marry well. It turns out that she’s a whole lot more angst-filled than I had initially anticipated. And the hero is the disgraced brother of the heroine from my current release, a minor character who was not a very admirable guy who somehow insisted he was redeemable and needed his own story.

I’m grabbing The Winter Queen the next time I get to civilization and can’t wait for your Irish series to debut. (And Diane, your upcoming book-of-the-beautiful-cover is on the auto buy list too!)

Jane Austen
13 years ago

This post reminds me a little of the Kasey Michaels mystery series Maggie Kelly. She writes Regency set mystery novels and her characters leave their plot line to tell Maggie she’s made a big mistake in her story and it needs to change. Then they sort of take over her life. They’re fun if anyone hasn’t read them.

It also reminds me of how huge Sherlock Holmes became. There are a lot of people who don’t know the he isn’t real. During the time of Jack the Ripper people were actually saying that Sherlock Holmes was the killer.

I think I have characters take over my life in different ways since I’m more of a reader than a writer (I love writing academic papers, which don’t really have characters although I am working on an update of Northanger Abbey). I actually eat my grapefruit the way Sherlock Holmes ate his because I read about it and thought it was cool. I like the Kansas Jayhawks because Daniel Sullivan, a character from one of my favorite books, played basketball for them. I eat Minstrels because Bridget Jones ate Minstrels. I wear a pink sweater with a yellow and green scarf because Tilda did in a book and I thought it was a great color combination. I probably have about 100 more of these. But that’s how characters take over my life.

13 years ago

All I can think is that Mr. Collins has clearly never had the experience and is probably jealous. 🙂 I actually did interviews with a couple of characters, before I started writing. The planned heroine changed completely the moment I started the first chapter. It wasn’t what I planned at all. I can look back now and say that the original idea was boring, and the new one ever so much better; thankfully I shut up and listened to my characters.

The memorable characters are those that are so much more than I ever imagined. I think I compare them to Devlin and Maddy, in Mysterious Miss M. They could have been such ordinary people, but by choosing to move forward, as opposed to settling for where they were, they became quite extraordinary.

And eggplant parmesan sounds really, really yummy!

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

I do love hearing everyone’s stories of characters taking over! Now I know I’m not the only one, and not entirely crazy. 🙂

Julia, I don’t do “character interviews” either, or even very much preliminary work on the story. I’m such a pantser writer, I have to actually dive into the story itself to see where things are going and get to know the characters. If I try to do initial planning, they just change things on me and all that time spent on outlines and such is wasted.

And I am definitely going out for Italian for dinner. 🙂

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

I think I compare them to Devlin and Maddy, in Mysterious Miss M. They could have been such ordinary people, but by choosing to move forward, as opposed to settling for where they were, they became quite extraordinary.

Why, Judy, what a nice thing to say! Devlin and Maddie felt and still feel like real people to me. That is what amazes me about my characters; I forget they aren’t real.

I never do interviews either, but I quickly ‘know’ what happened to my characters in the past.

Susan Wilbanks
13 years ago

I’ve never done character interviews, either, but when I first started my WIP, I was having trouble connecting with my protagonist, so I started taking him with me in my everyday life. I asked his opinion of contentious staff meetings at work, of the drawn-out presidential primary and the modern American political system in general, of the Advent anthems we were working on in choir, anything.

And I discovered that the problem with begging a character to talk to you is that before you know it he won’t. shut. up. I’m like a 5-year-old with an especially snarky and aristocratically British imaginary friend.

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

LOL Susan! Sometimes I feel just the same. 🙂

Elena Greene
13 years ago

I have tried character interviews but often my characters just don’t answer. The best thing I’ve found is to put them into various situations and see what they’ll *do*.

Congrats on turning in the book, Amanda!

Julia Justiss
Julia Justiss
13 years ago

Ooh, it was so interesting reading about how characters attack writers and readers. Glad I’m not the only one who can’t make character interviews work (they did a workshop on this at my chapter once and **everyone** was saying how wonderfully it worked for them–felt like Dunce Number One and kept silent.)

LOL on the snarky Brit aristo inhabiting your head, Susan!

Come to think of it, I’ve adopted certain habits and picked up items because a character in a book has inspired me. What a tribute to the writer, too!

About those characters, tho, and how they get to you: my biggest problem is that they tend to tell me things when I’m in the middle of something else, like driving home from work, when I can’t write down what they say. Then they laugh nastily when I get home and can’t remember the really amazing insight they tried to give me.

Ammanda, what’s the next deadline?

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

February 1!!! New deadline countdown.

And why do characters always become helpful right when we can do nothing about it? Mine like to pop up in the middle of the day job…

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