Do Your Characters Control You?

As a creator of unique fictional worlds, it is important to remember that YOU are the one who controls canon over the setting, the plot, and the characters.

Writers flirt with giving characters “consciousnesses” and talking about fictional worlds as if they exist outside of themselves. There are a few reasons for this. One of which is to cope with the sensations of creation, especially when generating something that seems separate to the individual mind’s identification of itself.

It allows exploration for a stream-of-consciousness/brainstorming that eases rationality enough to consider ideas and character development without being hindered by technicalities. Giving characters “a life of their own” is a handy mind-trick to pump out dialogue and narrative quickly.

However, an idea, or character, should never be fully independent from a writer’s decision-making. This is where some writers tend to get lost. The ability to shape characters instead of acquiesce to them is a trait that distinguishes professional authors from fanficesque creatives.

Let’s take a fictional example of a character development process; say… a love interest for an unknown protagonist named Ikila. I’ll make it up right here and now.

Ikila will be inspired by a picture from Pinterest. I randomly grabbed the first character picture I saw on my general board.

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Ikila now has some traits that can be sourced; she’s female, black hair, tan/olive skin, brown/dark eyes with stately, effeminate facial features (trimmed brows, dark liner, slender nose, full lush lips, narrow jawline/chin, wide cheekbones, etc.). The jewelry suggests some kind of tribal mysticism or cultural significance, maybe even royalty depending on the world. The nudity suggests vulnerability, but paired with the set model expression gives a certain stoicism, again hinting at mannerisms that become a proper station in a society. Looking out away from the viewer can make her personality be determined or of a curious nature.

All of that comes from observing the picture and an identity is built to create the character. Let’s decide Ikila is a tribal princess who is smart beyond her years, but still growing up in a world that might be harsh, but adventurous.

With that simple description combined with the image, a writer can now begin to write Ikila in scenes and form further development around her character.

This is where the sensations of independence start to emerge, when the character seems to become something that is outside of the author, a grand illusion of their imagination.

At some point, the writer might need to make a decision. By this point, Ikila feels like a fleshed-out character who is an individual with energy of her own. The writer has reached a point in the plot where the Protagonist has to take an artifact somewhere – but up until this moment, Ikila’s tribal nature has been defined to care about keeping artifacts in their original places and not taking them away no matter what.

For purposes of this example, taking this artifact away is absolutely essential to the greater story and has to happen. Something else that has to happen is the protagonist needs his love interest by his side for a later dramatic scene that will take place.

So neither his love interest can go away or the artifact be left behind.

A meta-conflict arises, a creative battle occurs between whether to prioritize Character or Plot.

The Character-dominant writer looks at this conflict and responds with “But that’s not what Ikila would do.

They ignore the plot’s original direction and change the plot specifically to cater to Ikila’s development as a character so far. While technically the story continues on, the author made a decision on the character’s behalf instead of molding Ikila to better fit the story itself.

The Plot-driven professional wouldn’t do this. They wouldn’t utter the words “But that’s not…” to their own chosen outline and direction of plot. Instead they would look at what needs to happen in the plot and at the conflict with Ikila’s development so far. Retracing their steps, Ikila would be polished so that aspect of her personality becomes whatever would better suit the plot.

They might keep a semblance of the original trait, but make it less pronounced – assuming the trait has already been written about and doesn’t exist solely in the writer’s mind. If the latter, then the decision is simple and the author erases that bit of trait and moves on with the story as planned.

Most importantly, this can be done when a work is in progress, not published yet, and usually been outlined and is not free-writing. There is no limitation when it comes to changing characters and developing them to better present the plot itself when the writer can go in and edit things to fit.

For series already published, this becomes more difficult, but not impossible – which is why it’s important for a main series cast to have firmly understood traits and developments that are decided with the future in mind. This is why for some series, authors outline the entire arch of the greater story before even starting book one.

There are professionals who viciously cut out characters who distract the reader or merge characters that serve similar purposes. This is an old tactic that’s been used to create stronger works and tighter prose.

Character-driven writers forget this opportunity, often due to the imagination process dominating their creative decisions and becoming such fans of characters that the feeling of a character’s unique identity is all that matters. The writer becomes a player of their characters, rather than a creator. They forget the power they wield due to the illusion of independence caused by their own imagination.

Don’t let characters control you. Enjoy them, but don’t let them tyrannically rule over a story that you’re creating. Understand that a character’s independence only goes as far as you allow it. For authors writing fiction novels, it’s better to exert discipline over character development and prioritize plot when the two contradict one another.

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3 thoughts on “Do Your Characters Control You?

  1. The problem with making a distinction between “character driven” and “plot driven” stories is that plot is really nothing more than “what the characters do.” Unless the characters are in some way motivated to do things, there is no plot.

    To use your example of Ikila and the artifact, let’s suppose that the protagonist tries to persuade Ikila to help him take the artifact to where it has to go, and she absolutely refuses because she has been taught from birth that the artifact must remain in the temple or the wrath of the gods will descend upon them.

    Mr. Protagonist then steals the artifact in the dead of night and hightails it through the jungle. Ikilia is horrified once she realizes what has happened and goes after him, leaving her village for the first time in her life. After several days of travel through the rugged wilderness Mr. Protagonist is captured by a hostile tribe who recognize the artifact and decide to keep it and roast him for dinner. Ikilia then has to rescue the artifact from the defilers, and as long as she’s breaking into the hostile tribe’s compound she might as well get Mr. Protagonist, too, so that she can take him back to her tribe to face their justice.

    Along the way she is captured, too, and the two of them must work together to escape.

    And here’s where Ikilia starts to change. She realizes that the artifact has been gone from the temple for some time now, and there haven’t been any rains of blood or fire from the heavens. None of the the horrible wrath of the gods she has been expecting have happened at all. She begins to question what she has been taught, and also to question her view of Mr. Protagonist as an evil defiler of sacred spaces–when they are prisoners together he has the chance to explain why the artifact needs to be moved and she has no choice but to hear him out.

    Now, that’s a different story than what would develop from going back and changing Ikilia’s character from the beginning and in some ways it could be a more interesting story. I find that basing my plot on the characters–rather than the reverse–is what keeps my story moving.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, even if I disagree with some of it.

      Basically, I disagree with the premise that plot is nothing more than “what the characters do”. While characters interact, react, and evolve within a story, they do not solely define what a plot is. This is because I define plot as how the story is presented to a reader in regards to the progression of scenes and what events are openly shared.

      Your consideration for how you would handle the story is a perfect example of what I meant when I said, “While technically the story continues on…”

      The creative mind supplies possibilities that would make sense to prioritize a character’s forming preferences This is why it’s partially a mind-trick to generate story through characters dominating the writing process, especially for moments that haven’t been figured out or decided which direction to go in.

      It’s up to the individual writer whether they want to develop a story in this character-driven fashion and how to apply that to the plot (story’s presentation). Sometimes it will be an interesting path to follow, but sometimes it creates complications later on and sometimes it will seem awkward through diluting the greater story itself. A potential trap in character-dominant decision-making is that some writers lose track of a story’s essence and pull it in a variety of directions instead.

      Depending on the project and the writer, basing plot purely on characters can be successful or it can seem to lack structure.

      During brainstorming and free-writing stages of a story, certainly there is give-and-take between the characters and plot. Especially if a writer jumps in with no plot outlining prior to writing. Still, it’s important to make sure that characters aren’t constantly forcing a story in conflicting directions that are difficult to resolve towards the story’s end. This can be done through clever story formation, like in your shared example, or it can be assured through prioritizing plot.

      Thus, why I am more of a mind right now to choose plot over characters WHEN they come in conflict with one another.

      In the past, I’ve written with extremely dominant characters and have plenty of personal experience allowing character whims to guide a story. It’s almost the nature of RPGs to do so. I still toy with giving priority to characters now and then (for instance while brainstorming), but in a measured fashion where I’m aware I don’t want to let the egos of my characters control the course of a plot (how the story is presented) for a number of reasons. I’ve gotten to a point where I’m comfortable with backtracking and changing characters, merging them, splitting them, deleting them entirely if necessary, and essentially molding them into what will make the work stronger in my eyes.

      Perhaps this is because it’s not about keeping the story moving for me because the story is often already set, but about honing the plot with ideas of thematic narrative and potential reader reactions. Elimination, manipulation, and reduction of scenes/prose is as much a part of the writing process as giving characters free rein to play in a world.

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