In a ski resort terrain park, ramps range from five to twenty feet high. Intimidating, to say the least. So before I dropped in, I asked for some advice from a more advanced skier. He said, “Just go for it.” Confused, I asked for some specifics. He just repeated, “You gotta just go for it, man.”
At the time I thought his advice little help. What does “go for it” entail? But after landing, I learned these ramps are easier than they appear. The physics are there. The jump isn’t a shot up and harsh down, it’s a smooth curve. Just like skiing over a mound – only the mound isn’t below you. “Just go for it” summarized a long detailed explanation of the physical laws ruling motion.
Writing is no different. As a beginning writer, I heard “The characters must take control of your story.” There are even multiple ways to say this: “Your characters must be able to do what they want” or “You should sit back and watch your characters grow” or “The characters are asking you to be born” or “The characters just wouldn’t let me do that” or “You need to be real to your characters” or “Don’t force your characters.” All these platitudes sounded ridiculous to me. I am the author. I control my characters, not the other way around. What the heck does any of this even mean?
Don’t be fooled – characters will not suddenly become real people, capable of reaching out from your computer to type their own story. The above platitudes make characters sound like divine creatures channeling their powers through us lowly humans, or like seeds that we might plant and then sit back and watch. This is false. You control everything in your writing.
Characters are controllable and you manipulate them. But this does not mean that the people stating the platitudes are wrong. They’re expressing a desire for True Characters.
So what is a True Character? A True Character is one that acts on the motivations and situations that you have created. The “control” these characters take is not the author losing ability to tell them what to do or describe who they are. When authors say the character took control, they really mean their literary-eye and real-world instincts lead them in a direction different from their original intent.
Perhaps you plot out your story. Characters are to go from A to B to C. But then you start writing and A jumps to L and lands at Y. This out-of-order writing (ie -- “characters have taken control”) arises because your character develops from what you’ve previously written, not what you planned would happen next.
Example story (you’ve seen it a million times): Bob and Sally are absolutely nothing alike. They dislike each other at first, go through some rough experience together, and afterwards see each others’ inner beauty and fall in love. This can happen easily when Bob and Sally, despite being opposites, are given a True reason to love one another. Perhaps their conflict together forces Bob to open up emotionally, and perhaps Sally sheds her rumor-based misconceptions of Bob, or perhaps they see the error of their ways through the other’s traits. I could go on.
As an author you can push two characters together. But creating True characters becomes more difficult when considering how they stay together. If Bob is a cocaine addict and Sally adamantly declares she will never date a man who does drugs, you “force” your characters if you don’t address the drug issue. Bob needs to reform and stop using drugs or Sally needs to falter and see all the wonderful joys of cocaine [I’m not promoting drug use here, I’m just showing how a character might change]. Sally cannot just shrug and say, “Oh, I’ll overlook this one fault that I’ve always hated.” If drug-hatred is important to Sally, you "force" her when she ignores this trait you created. When you ignore what you’ve created, “the characters can’t do what they want.”
To control your characters without forcing them, provide valid reasons and motivation for change. Bob might agree to rehab if Sally threatens to leave him and call the police. This cannot be an easy decision for Bob. He needs to struggle through a tough choice – but in the end, you can control his change. It’s an Untrue Bob who would just shrug and say, “I remove myself easily and effortlessly from my previous lifestyle and chemical dependence. All on the mere words of this girl I love.” Bob can try – and succeed – but he needs to struggle. Sally can forgive and forgive, but eventually she needs to draw the line in the sand.
The author can command, dominate and manipulate the character all he/she wants. Do not think that if your characters don’t run away with themselves or start talking to you from beyond the keyboard that you are somehow not meant to be a writer. But that inkling, that instinctual itch telling you something’s not correct in the story – that’s around because you’re making your characters acting contrary to how you’ve created them.