Who’s In Charge Here?

by Janis Patterson

Once someone asked me to do a workshop on creating characters. He had read several of my books and was impressed with how ‘real’ they all were. Could I, he asked, share my creation process?

I told him I couldn’t do such a workshop, and explained why, but somehow I don’t think he believed me. And I couldn’t blame him, because it’s pretty unbelievable.

You see, I’ve taken all the workshops. I’ve done character sheets and created questionnaires for them, some even to the extent of their favorite flavor of Jello. And every character so created died. Just faded away into cardboard flatness. I have never ‘just created’ a major or even secondary character. Minor characters and walk-ons, yes; but let’s be honest – one doesn’t have to go very deeply into a character who appears just a time or two and has only a couple of lines, if that.

So what do I do to have these apparently wonderfully realistic characters? The basic truth is, I stay out of the way.

You see, my characters come to me. They march into the story and tell me what they’re going to do. If I say the leading man has to have sooty black hair and he says he has a curly red mop, I have to go along. If I don’t, he’ll go sit in the corner with his back to me and not say a word. He won’t speak to me, he won’t do what I tell him to – he just lies there like a lump. Trying to bend him to my will is sort of like trying to make pantyhose out of an oak tree. Sooner or later – if I’m smart – I give in.

It’s the way I’ve worked all my life. I believe in character-driven stories (always have) and therefore by necessity have become a thorough pantser. Though I do have some vague idea of where the story is going, and usually a pretty good idea of where it’s going to end (though not always!) for me writing is simply hanging on for dear life until the characters are satisfied.

On one of my mystery novels I knew from the beginning who the murderer was going to be. There were several villains of one persuasion or another, but the murderer was going to be someone special. I wrote along happily, until about the last third of the book, when I had a sinking sensation in my stomach that the person I had always thought the murderer couldn’t have done it.

Urk.

Okay, I thought for a while and decided that another character just had to be the murderer. Except a chapter later I found he couldn’t have done it either. All in all, I changed the murderer’s identity five times in the last third of the book, and for one reason or another not one of them could have done it.

Double urk.

I was almost to the point of giving up when like a light from above the perfect solution came to me. It was a character I had never associated with the murder and for a reason that had never occurred to me, but everything fit together as if it had been planned from the beginning – means, motive and opportunity in one well-wrapped package. I finished the book with ease. But then – there was the problem of clues. The solution was perfect, but now I quailed at the thought of having to go back through the entire book and plant clues to the murderer. One should always play fair with the reader, after all…

Finally I girded myself for the task and plunged in… where I found to my utter amazement that they were already there. I did add one or two more, just so I’d have some feeling of being in control, but the story would have worked equally as well if I hadn’t. When I think of how many hours I spent worrying and how many scenes I wrote and then trashed…! It would have been so much simpler if I had just sat back and let the characters do the heavy lifting.

That was several years ago and that book is still selling well. It has also won more awards than any other of my books.

My current Work-In-Progress is a straight romance set in the Palo Duro Canyon kindle world of the fantastic Carolyn Brown (who is also a friend, I’m proud to say) and it is ticking along most pleasingly, which means the characters are behaving quite well. Jeri and Doug are total opposites – she’s a sophisticated globe trotting photographer, he’s a tall, strong and handsome rancher – and their mutual attraction is working just fine. I was about 10K into the book when all of a sudden her half-sister who is also her agent (and who I had no idea even existed) started banging about and now she’s worming her way into being a major part of the story… and perhaps the heroine of yet another book that I had never even thought of!

Years ago my late – and adored – mother, a supremely practical woman, listened to me talking about writing with something like despair. “They’re your imagination,” she said half angrily, half condescendingly, “they should do what you say.” Of course, very few living people ever defied my mother… When she tried to write a book on her own, though, she changed her tune. Apparently her characters were a strong-willed as mine. It was a pretty good book, too, but unfortunately she died before it was finished. I’ve been asked why I didn’t finish it for her (like I did her memoir THE LAND OF HEARTS DELIGHT) I can only say that her characters won’t speak to me and I have no idea of where she was going with it. It’s sad.

The Husband has no intention of ever writing anything except a technical report, but when I tried to describe my writing process to him, he thought for a moment, then said “Sounds like possession to me.” He might be right. I just know that I can only pretend to be in control.

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8 Responses to Who’s In Charge Here?

  1. Characters live in our minds and imaginations long before we write a word. So it makes sense that they often take over the story. It pays to be flexible with plots and characters.

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  2. Loved this. It’s exactly what happens to me. I’ve given up trying to decide early who the murderer is. I simply write until I find him or her. Sometimes i have an idea, but that rarely turns out to be correct. This used to bother me. Now I just go with the flow. It makes writing a lot more fun and less stressful to trust the subconscious. I also figure if I’m surprised by who the murderer is, hopefully the reader will be, too.

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  3. N. N. Light says:

    Wow and here I thought I was the only one who write that way. Your husband’s right on with the whole possession thing. My characters (all of them) take me over and tell their story. Of course, they grumble at my typing speed (Can’t you go faster?) but I let them in. I tried the whole organized writing down character bios and so forth but found that it only stifled their voices. Real characters come out of going through the process.

    I laughed my head off at your experience of writing the last third of your mystery and changing your murderer five times. LOL! Priceless.

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  4. EARL STAGGS says:

    Susan, I have to agree with you. Sometimes characters take over and do their own thing regardless of what we had in mind for them. I LOVE when that happens.

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  5. It sounds like you take the Ray Bradbury approach. 🙂

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  6. skyecaitlin says:

    This was delightful to read, and I do like when characters emerge via the sub conscious. It makes perfect sense to me.

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  7. mary hagen says:

    I’ve tried outlining, writing out characters, thinking I had my book planned to the last page. Then I start writing, my outline goes out the door, except for names, the characters change, (sometimes the names, too), and my endings don’t always end as I’ve planned. I could relate to your artilcel

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  8. Urk indeed! I know exactly what you mean. I get so frustrated when characters refuse to do what I tell them, but just like you, I often find that their solution is better and has been there all along. Nice view on the creative process.

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