When your characters walk away from you

I’ve been doing some blog maintenance in preparation for some website updates–winnowing down the archives, categorizing the uncategorical, cringing at old teasers. And in doing so, I stumbled across the following entry, from October of 2009:

Manuscript Update re: ENCOUNTER AT RHEA’S POINT

[. . . ]

Through the increased production, the characters started to run away with the plot a bit: my protagonist got all nervous about her first kiss, and somehow managed to drag out the action leading up to it; I realized that it wasn’t time for one character to die, despite the fact that I’d planned her death from the beginning. I don’t want to say something like, “It’s their novel at this point; I’m just telling the story,” because it sounds crazy. But that’s how it feels. I’m not entirely sure if this is a good or a bad thing: the writing is supposed to have control, of course, but I also want my characters to feel like fully realized people, which, I suspect, they are.

Funny thing–two and a half years later, I find myself struggling with the same problem. Just yesterday, I hit 20,000 words on the sequel to Starglass, and one of my characters picked up my plot and ran away with it.

Luckily, she didn’t take it too far. I should be able to recover, and bring the story back to approximately where it belongs. But still, she’s introduced unnecessary complications, complications I hadn’t anticipated despite working for weeks with my agent and editor on a very detailed synopsis.

As was the case in 2009, I still feel self-conscious about talking about my characters this way. There’s something indulgent and a little goofy about an author who treats her fictional creations as if they’re flesh-and-blood real. It’s a habit I mostly associate with my high school days. My best friend and I had these characters, you see (vampires, natch), and we’d write stories about them and pass them off between classes. “What’s Carter doing?” she would ask, and I’d respond in detail as if his life was one that occurred in a parallel timeline to our own.

And yet as vaguely embarrassed as I am by this practice–as much as it makes me blush to say “Mara does what she wants–I’m merely transcribing,” with my strongest characters, and in my most successful fiction, it genuinely feels like the truth. In fact, I’d say that it’s only with my less successful works that it’s not the case. I can strong-arm my characters into place only when their personalities are hazily defined, their needs vague, their desires stated–but not strongly felt.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know that this “Mara Stone” is not a real person (don’t tell her that, please). I suspect that what’s happening is this: a well-defined character can only logically react in so many ways to certain stimuli. Anything else will seem contrary to his or her nature as defined. You can outline in detail; you can synopsize with the best of them, but sometimes their logical, inevitable reaction to plot won’t be clear until they’re immersed in it. And then it will be crystal.

You can’t just force a character to act contrary to his or her nature. That won’t feel natural to you, and it won’t feel organic to readers, either. It’s one thing to have a character believably grow; it’s another to have him or her act as a collection of random, contradictory traits. You can do the former, but not the latter, or I will get mad at you and roll my eyes. You’re therefore left with two options:

First of all, you can change the stimulus that’s causing the character to react this way. If you have a bunch of strongly defined characters, this can be difficult, because they’ll all be reacting off one another like a gaggle of emotional teenagers, which they probably are. But maybe your character is reacting to a plot twist that can be changed; maybe you can modulate another character’s speech or actions to elicit a different response. That way, your plot can continue unabated, without the troublemaker’s big, loud, personality getting in the way.

(Yes, I’m looking at you, Mara Stone.)

The second option is to get down with some degree of flexibility. Let your characters drive the plot, at least a little. Let your writing process be exploratory, rather than rigid. It’s a little scary to say, “Okay, I give up. Do what you want, fictional people!” But as kooky as it makes you sound, your book–your whole reason for doing this, right?–might come out better for it.