So I have the basic layout of my story. … The problem is my characters won’t let me stick to my admittedly sketchy outline and keep taking me off on tangents. So my question is, do you ever let your characters run roughshod over your supposed plot and see where it leads you? Or do you whip them into shape and try to at least pretend you are sticking to your original plot line. I’m worried if let my characters have free rein, I’m going to lose all semblance of a story arc and end up with a rambling mess that even major surgery can’t bring back to an understandable plot line.
You are right. You will end up with a rambling mess.
Hey, I told you we would be honest. 🙂
First, let’s get something out of the way: your characters are figments of your imagination. They are not separate people. Try to keep that in mind. You’ll hear people talk about writing and say things like, “Oh my characters are just not speaking to me” etc. What they usually mean is, the story is borked, they know it’s borked, but they don’t know why, so they are waiting for the subconscious to sort it out. Their characters aren’t just magically going to write the story for them. Remember, it’s you. Your mind, your imagination. There is nobody else.
When we create characters, we aim for them to fill a specific role in the story. Real people are infinitely complex. Ted Bundy murdered women, saved a drowning child, and worked at a suicide prevention hot line. Real life doesn’t have to make sense. Fiction does.
Most likely, you created all these cool characters and now you want to play with them, because there is something about them that you find fascinating. You are attracted to them, they are easy to write, and off you go off the beaten path into the woods.
The problem isn’t the characters. The problem is, your outline doesn’t utilize them to their fullest potential. You are bored with your outline. Pick you protagonist. Pick your antagonist. Now think of the way to showcase the best of each. Build your story around that. You know you hit pay dirt, when you find yourself anticipating writing the next scene. You should be chortling and rubbing your hands in anticipation.
It’s like climbing up a mountain carrying a rock. You set up, set up, set up, get to the top, and then the rock goes flying and all of the sahanu are dead.
For example, in Clean Sweep, there is a tortuously long build up between Sean and Dina. The reader knows Dina has magic powers. Sean doesn’t. He pushes her and pushes her and the reader is sitting there and going, “Oh boy, oh boy, she’s going to let him have it and won’t he be surprised?”
Look at your characters and really think about what story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.
Writing fiction involves keeping several development balls in the air. Tensions are created between world building, character building, plot development, and conversation development, which can cause one or more of those activities to suffer. A great character with some witty dialogue one-liners can wander through a plot-development desert for several chapters. You can conceive of an amazing world, but the characters act like NPCs rather than fulfillers of their own fictional destiny. In your development and maturing as professional writers, what tricks have you developed in terms of managing these tensions in your writing projects and getting them to the intended end goal?
“A great character with some witty dialogue one-liners can wander through a plot-development desert for several chapters.” No, they really can’t.
Each scene in your story must advance plot and character. It varies to which degree these two aspects are present.
This is a complicated question, because there are two arcs in the narrative: emotional and external. Sometimes there are scenes that appear to be dealing with just one of them.
The best advice I can give you is, look at your narrative scene by scene. With every scene ask yourself, “Do I have to have this to tell the story?” If the answer is no, cut it. Once you are left with a lean outline, instead of trying to make separate scene for character development, weave it into the scenes you already have. It should give you a solid foundation.
For example, a pirate dude captures a beautiful woman and seduces her. Character development scene, right? She gives him leprosy and his crew offloads him on a deserted island. There you go, now it’s both plot and character. 🙂
While I am not a writer, I do play a lot of DnD where you get to create a bunch of different characters (yes I am a huge nerd) either as the DM or just as a player. I have found that diversifying the characters personalities I create is difficult (they all kind of fall back on my own eventually).How have you found way to keep you characters personalities distinct from each other throughout your series without them falling back into your own personality?
I suspect that your ethics keep getting in the way. You have a strong sense of right and wrong, and when confronting a problem, you, and your characters, are thinking about the best way to resolve it according to your set of values. Try to look at it from their point of view.
Let’s do a little exercise. Here is the quiz that’s trying to help you find your place in Kate’s Atlanta. There are 6 possible answers: the Order, the Pack, the People, the Covens, the Guild, and PAD. Instead of trying to answer them as yourself, try to take this quiz as one of the characters from a faction. Like how would Jim answer it? How would Nick answer it? See if you can put yourself into the mindset of a particular character and get the right faction at the end.
A master class in character building from yourselves is amazing and helpful to those just starting out. For struggling writers this is a total gem ? thanks Guys ?
I did the test – I belong in the Covens ?♀️
That’s what I’m going for but never get the right mix! I guess I’m just not destined for witchcraft!
Me too. #CovenLife??
A witch of the covens
I’m not a fiction writer, but I am somewhat analytical and enjoy the view into your process; it adds to my enjoyment of your books. Thank you for sharing. Just for giggles I tried to answer the questions as Dali and found her to be more enigmatic than I realized. Still, she came out as Pack so I didn’t do too badly. 🙂
Daniel B says
Heyyyy I got it “right,” sort of. I was going for Curran and I got The Pack. Although that one is a little tricky given his character progression, I felt like it was pretty spot on.
Sweet, I got 2 for 2! I tried Nick and got the order. Then I tried Jim and got the pack!
I tried it as Mohan and got the pack even though I clicked on the wrong option on one of them and couldn’t figure out how to uncheck it and I was too lazy to reload and do it again. Apparently I had enough other answers to match pack or the option I did select still worked for the pack.
It is an interesting exercise, though, to have a quiz like this and run through the options as the character and not yourself. I have the same problem with writing where characters end up sounding like me instead of themselves.
Hey, Gordon, do you guys have a quiz for Innkeeper? I’m curious if I’d be an Innkeeper, Ad Hol, vampire, Horde (the other one), or one of the other species.
Oops, I assumed from the picture in the blog that Gordon wrote the post, but it said Ilona did. So apologies if you did write the post, Ilona.
I love your blogs. I’ve always enjoyed good writing regardless of the subject and you always deliver “good reads”.
I’m not just part of the BDH, I think I may also be blog addict. No going to BA, don’t need steps, just your blogs.
Intersting activity, I tried as myself and found I fit in The Pack.
I too have found myself lost in the blogs and reading, rereading not just the stories, but all the comments. Fun analysis, humor, empathy – I enjoy it ALL
Thank you much! I hope we’ll have part 3 and 4 and so on of this! (I asked a question too about secondary characters, but it was probably super dumb- I’m REALLY enjoying your brutal honesty, it’s so practical and helpful!).
Now off to take the Quiz again and hope I’ve grown since the last time when it came up Order- because yuk!
Lisa Pepper says
OMG! I got the PAD!
thought like Jim and got the Pack, before when this was offered I thought like me and got the PAD, interesting experiment in perspective
I did the test and tried it from Roland’s perspective. As I ended up with the People, I think I did fairly well. 🙂
I don’t write fiction, but I very much enjoy the views of the nuts and bolts.
Whenever I do the test, no matter how I vary the answers on the ambiguous ones (about 4 out of the 10) I end up with the Order. Just now I tried it as Julie, and got the Pack. I guess that’s reasonable, since she’s probably more Pack than anything else at this point.
Emma L says
Any one else suddenly wanting to read a story about an abandoned pirate infected with leprosy?
This comment made me laugh out loud.
I did as if I was Julie and got a merc… so how close was my try?
I got Coven for me, the order for nick, and the pack for Jim, but it was harder than I thought to be nick.
Nick was difficult, I agree!
Hi Ilona and Gordon,
I have written a few chapters of something but have stalled on it. My husband offered to read it but I’m too embarrassed to show him – probably this means what I’ve written is rubbish. Are you ever embarrassed or reluctant to show each other something you’ve written?
Not to each other. But both of our daughters write and I have yet to see anything one has written – her sister reports it’s good – and I am only allowed to see very small scenes of the other one’s work.
It doesn’t mean you’ve written rubbish. It’s just means it’s important to you.
Haha when I do the quiz as myself I get the People. I get the point though. Fun and helpful article on writing! Thank you
Hehe me too – just like last time I tried 😉
Thank you for this insight! I’m a rather analytical person and enjoy getting a glimpse behind the curtain with the writing thought process.
As for the quiz, I’m not surprised that I am part of the order.
Lena 08 says
My car is BLUE, and as long as any car I have is BLUE, it’s fine for me. 😀
Lena 08 says
Oh, and I’m PACK (with a BLUE car).
You guys are the first author(s) I’ve heard tell another author that their characters don’t “go off and do what they want”, that they are figments of their imagination and they don’t have “minds of their own”. I know this isn’t the first time you’ve told someone that. I have read some seriously talented, intelligent, and successful authors use this phrasing as explanation or motivation for some action they took when writing their story. I don’t know what their motivation is, I just think it’s lame. And a little crae.
I don’t pass judgement on other authors or however they want to discuss their creative process. 🙂 As you said, many successful authors choose to describe it that way.
But when you are starting out, thinking that you have no control over the creative side of you that wants to play with the characters can be dangerous, because it keeps you from figuring out why you want to play with the characters instead of writing your novel or why this or that character construct isn’t working. It can be a way to duck problems. Figuring out why stuff isn’t working is difficult and it’s far easier to say, “John, my main lead, just isn’t talking to me tonight and the heroine is being an utter bitch.” That way you can offload some of the guilt onto imaginary people. But at the end, the story has to be told and the writer has to figure out what the hold up is sooner or later.
Oh man, I tried to do Still in the Order Andrea, and pffft:PAD. Me, I’m Pack, which surprises me not at all (my inner shuffle puff keeps coming out to play.)
It’s interesting to hear your take on the process. It seems right in line with the personality I’ve seen here in the blog, with your stories, and I wonder how much the partnership plays into that. It seems as if there’s more opportunities to hash out the tangents verbally, rather than work through them on the page. At the same time, you’re accountable to each other, so the impetus to get something on the page would be a wee bit higher. I mean, I could see making that excuse to my own self, but maybe not out loud to my partner. Which is not imply that it’s easier or less creative- I imagine the partnership brings its own host of difficulties- just that wayward characters might not be one of them.
Hufflepuff, stupid autocorrect. Way to kill the joke.
Ooooh. I originally did the quiz a while back. In Kate’s world I came out as Pack. This time because of reading Sweep of the Blade, I did the quiz keeping the Lees in my head(nuan cee) – came out as the Guild!
Thank you. That was insightful.
Characters are a real problem for me, but only because I have so very many in my head. In truth, it’s probably an unhealthy amount of imaginary people roaming around up there, most with such clearly defined personalities, powers, worlds, and so on that my son and I tend to casually refer to them as if they were real friends or family. Unfortunately, as interesting as they are to me, I have yet to spend time fleshing out an organized story others might care about. So, while my heart might envision a multi-series universe for them to play in, I’ve come to realize that my particular combination of A.D.D., obsessive tendencies, and total unwillingness to have anything to do with social media or in-person promotions means I’m probably not professional novel writer material. I either wouldn’t be able to get anything done, hate and burn whatever I did, or somehow do everything right but never promote the thing in the end. LOL, I’m such a mess. At least having all of these characters in my head makes for good mental entertainment while trying to fall asleep at night. 🙂
Hi, thank you very much for this post! I used to write fanfiction Buț I must Say that I just went with the Flower, never made a plan for my story or figured ahead where I was going with some parts of the story. I guess it went well beacause I had the characters from the original story and I had an ideea what their personalities were. This would have helped me a lot back then!
I took the test as myself and got Pack ! I loved it!
Thank you again and sorry for my grammar, english is not my first laguage ?
Ooh what fun ..I came out as order… Going to go try out as others.. you keep giving us beautiful gifts and I wish you in return all the goodness life has to offer.. bless your generosity and writing..
Dear Ilona, I’ve been thinking all week about what your Dad said,
This is the man who, when I called to tell him that we have hit #1 on NYT said, “Yes, but when will you go back to school and get your bachelors?”
Your blog above clearly shows that you are teaching a college level master class in writing, every time you post one of these “help for writers” blogs. In fact, if you pasted them together, you would, no doubt be able to publish a
college writing class text book.
Obviously, if you go for a degree in writing, you do it to prepare yourself to make a career and be able to make a living as a writer.
How many college writing professors would gladly sign their degrees over to you (not to mention relinquishing their right arms) if in return they could, just
once get on the coveted NYTBSL, let alone reach #1.
College degrees are only a means to an end. If you are talented enough to be able to skip that step, and go straight to the goal you are to be lauded to the nth degree.
College debt has now surpassed credit card debt in the US. Many of these debtors
will never get a job in the field in which they studied and will never be debt free.
Somehow Americans got it horribly wrong when they got the idea that a degree made you a better person than someone who, for example, fixed you car or your plumbing, even though the mechanic and the plumber might have the potential of making far more money than someone with, say, a liberal arts degree.
At some point it is no longer our job to measure up to other’s expectations, hard as that is to grasp. Kind of like Mahon and Curran. You just have to love him and be glad he doesn’t live with you full time. Been there, done that.
You and Gordon need not apologize to anyone. Your BDH loves you just the way you are. ❣️ ?
I’m in the Order???!!! ?
J Knock says
Thank you for this. I’m also not a writer but really enjoyed reading your answers.
I often feel like characters in your books are so lifelike that it is easy to believe they could be real, especially when you set them in cities I’ve lived in. But, this reminded me how much work it must be to keep all these characters consistent and distinct!
Thanks so much for these writing posts.
I’ve just found out that Jim belongs to the Order. Who knew?
Debra Kessing says
I did this as me and I’m in the Pack. Suits me fine 🙂
Ha! My character came out as a member of the Order, even though I myself came out as Pack. This completely fits my character’s personality and central flaws!
Hmmm tried to think like The Order/Nick and got PAD…well, close I suppose but not it, oh well ;p
Thought as myself and got the Guild, yup, I’m pretty much guild material, so got that right 😀
No no not again, Knight of the Order! What’s wrong with me. I trained as a Biologist in real life and the Biohazard Unit always spoke to me. Why did I end up as the Merciful Knights twice T.T