Putting the characters in the driver’s seat by Graham Davidson
Why be a control freak when you can let your characters drive the story for you?
Put a group of Spec fiction writers together and they’ll often get caught up in the Pantsers versus Plotters debate. For those unfamiliar with the argument, Pantsers generally start with a setting and some basic characters, then make up the story as they go with no idea how it will end till they get there. Plotters on the other hand will meticulously plan their story, with a clear picture of the story’s conclusion before they put pen to paper. Both methods are as valid as each other, and both have their advantages and disadvantages. Yet one thing I’ve found most Pantsers and Plotters agree on is that their characters should have free rein to drive the story.
So, why is this one area where two such diametrically opposed approaches find common ground?
The answer is simple. Getting to know your characters is like getting to know people in the real world. No matter how much you analyse them beforehand, it’s not until you see them interact with others and face difficult situations that you know how they’ll react. For me, discovering how characters are going to react to a given situation, and what little secrets they may have hidden, is one of the great joys in writing. An example that comes to mind from my recent Witches of the Cross-worlds middle grade novel, Hunter, is a gravedigger named Sean O’Malley. After a pauper’s funeral presided over by one of the novel’s central characters, the Reverend Alfred Casey, the priest rides off leaving O’Malley to fill the grave. As soon as the priest is out of sight O’Malley jumps into the grave and steals the dead man’s shoes, something I hadn’t planned or expected… it just seemed to happen. O’Malley went on to become one of the central characters in the book; a portrait of self-serving, evil intent.
When sitting at the keyboard it’s as though I’m observing and chronicling an unfolding story. At the start of a scene I’ll play the director; making sure everyone’s where they should be, and that the mood is right. I might put words into one character’s mouth to begin with, but after that it’s time to sit back and let the imagination run free with how the characters respond to situations and interact with each other. Meanwhile, I madly try to write it down while it remains fresh in the mind’s eye. When writing dialogue, this means skipping all attribution until the conversation is finished. You can always add tags where needed later.
The rewards are many when characters do or say something unexpected… like O’Malley stealing the dead man’s shoes. This is often when I’ll decide to end the scene, even if my original intention had been to carry it on for longer.
When a character’s actions or words take the writer by surprise, you can feel confident it will do the same for the reader. And that will keep them turning the pages to see what other surprises may lie in wait for them.