Thursday, April 28, 2011

When Characters Don't Do What You Want

I sat down to work on my new work-in-progress recently. I'm what is lovingly referred to as a "seat of the pantser" which means that I am in awe of people who, before they even start writing, have fully plotted out the book, know their characters intimately and even have chapter by chapter detailed synopses.

Here's how it works for me. A situation pops into my head. Closely followed by a main character. This generally occurs at a very inconvenient time in the middle of the night, leaving me blindly trying to find a pen and paper on the bedside table, followed by trying to decide whether to risk my husband's wrath by turning on the light or braving the cold and sneaking out to the living room.

I then spend a few days (or weeks) pondering if there is really a story here. It's one thing to have a great situation, it's another to try and spin it into a 90,000 word compelling plot. After I've ironed out a main framework, I sit down to start writing.

There are many good things about being a pantser. Writing a manuscript is a bit of an adventure, you never quite know what is going to show up on the page. There are many bad things about being a pantser. You never know what is going to show up on the page!

Case in point. On Tuesday night I sat down to write. Having hit a bit of a block at the end of the first chapter and having no idea of where to take the story next (bad thing about being a pantser), I decide to pick up the story at a later point where a long past ex-boyfriend makes a reappearance. So I'm writing away, feeling like I have some vague clue where I'm going, and the next thing I know there's A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT GUY ON THE PAGE. I don't know where he came from, I don't know what he's doing there, he's totally messing up the plot that I did have, and my traitorous heroine has chemistry with him!

So what would you do? Would you hit the delete button and force your heroine to go down the path (and the guy!) you have chosen for her? Or would you want to see where this "new" character takes things, even if it means you'll have a completely different story on your hands?


  1. Hello, I would go with the latter. I would try and see where the "new"character would take me. Your posts are quite motivating!Every time i read them i get the strength to try and continue writing. There not so many writers in Africa,so let's just say i am very much confused about my book. Keep up the good work!:)

  2. I'm a pantser too, Kara and I nearly always follow where the characters take me. Sadly, I often end up with a big "delete" file but the story never works when I try to force it.
    A technique I use when I'm stuck is to write long hand. There's something about the slower pace of a pen on paper that gets my brain working and new ideas flow as fast as I can write. On the computer I can spend ages staring at a blinking courser, going nowhere. Enjoy the adventure :- )

  3. I enjoyed this post. I've had that happen too (unsuspecting person shows up or a character that you've thought out quite well suddenly does something unexpected) However, I'm probably not a bonafide pantser ... This post made me smile!

  4. Oh Kara, life would be so much easier for us if we had characters who listened to us instead of the other way round. Still, I'd go with the new guy, if the heroine is attracted to him, he's got to have something we'd be attracted to, also. Maybe a little arrogance which she'll do her best to tame, thus some more conflict. Go with it, gal!

  5. Kara, I loved this post. Just a few hours before I read this post, I was writing my own blog posts (for the future) and I actually wrote about this same phenomenon: when the characters YOU create go their own way.

    And of course you have to go with the new guy. He showed up for a purpose, even if you don't know what that is. After all, why should you? You're only the writer.

  6. Go with the new one. Your subconscious has decided he's important. You may well end up with a better story.