Silvija Baltgalvis, in the FB group “Writers Helping Writers”, asked: “Kind of an odd question here,,,but,,, in writing a story do your characters develop so much they start to take the story in directions you never saw coming?”
My Short Answer: Yes. They’re the ones living and telling the story. When they take on a life of their own, that is (for me) the best possible sign!
My Longer Answer: Yes, and that’s when the real joy of my personal writing process begins.
When characters “go live” and start acting of their own accord, there’s always the danger that they’ll hare off in directions that run counter to your original plans for the novel. Now, for many years I was a total pantser, so all that “running away in strange directions” stuff didn’t bother me much. All I needed to do was follow the characters fast enough to keep up with them and write down what they thought/said/did.
When it came to writing “The Codex of Desire”, however, I took a different approach. I had sat down in advance and mocked up a quick summary for each of the major chapters — and therefore when Girn’ash took over the story and made it her own, or when U’nuk stepped out of the background and revealed himself as a “live” character with his own motivations and inner life (I had never met him before in my life, incidentally), I had a choice: either grab the characters and drag them back into line with what I’d planned at the beginning, or give them their heads and let them take me where THEY wanted to go.
That’s a moment, I think, when almost any writer truly balances on the knife’s edge, not sure which side leads back to the frying pan, where a delicious meal is being prepared, and which side leads straight into the fire — and disaster.
However, this is where writing nearly 1.25 million words of fan fiction in the past — and pantsing all of it — stood me in excellent stead. I wasn’t exactly a stranger to new characters leaping out of the woodwork and insinuating themselves into my story, or to my main characters deciding to take the left-hand path when I had thought they’d go to the right. And in EVERY SINGLE CASE where I’d trusted the Writing Machine (TM) in my head, the story had turned out much better for it. The “live” characters ALWAYS acted in a way that ultimately tied in with the greater plot of the story, and often in ways that brought in rich new themes or subplots.
I could rely not only on the Writing Machine (TM), but also on these strangely independent psychological constructs which felt like individuals sharing my brain space. Although I couldn’t always see the grander pattern they were weaving in their individual actions, those actions would inevitably form a tapestry which was often much better and richer than anything I could have come up with by myself, had I tried to consciously micro-manage every little thing.
So to come back to the original question… that moment when my characters start to go “off-model” is actually the moment I’m waiting for. Because when they start to surprise me and make their own demands, that’s when the magic really begins. 🙂