Who exactly is in charge here?

In interviews on other writers’ blogs, I’m often asked whether I outline in detail first, or just write as I go … for which I believe the official term is ‘pantser’.

The answer is that I don’t plot out much at all. I’ll have a basic premise in mind, and there will be certain points in the plot or events that I definitely want to get to somehow, but beyond that, I tend to allow my characters to take me where they want to go.

paper scrap PMThere’s a lot of writing advice out there suggesting that you should know your characters inside out before you even put pen to paper – make lists of all their traits, their likes and dislikes, their star sign, their friends and family …. even if those things might never crop up in your book.

I’m sure many writers find that helpful, but I can’t work that way – partly due to lack of time (it’s hard enough to find time to write, let alone make lists of things I might not want or need!) but mainly because I don’t want to know my characters that well at the start.

This is not as cavalier an attitude as it may seem. I believe realistic characters are absolutely key in a novel. As a reader, if I’m not invested in the characters, I’m not invested in the book, no matter how good the plot. And it’s so important in a romance, where the two characters and their developing relationship are the main purpose. As a writer, my characters must be very real to me … but I find that happens by allowing them to evolve once I begin. As their complexities unfold to me, so they will unfold to the reader.

I often quip that it’s more fun writing in this fly-by-night way, and to some extent that’s true. It certainly keeps the interest going as I write, and I hope that by the end if it, my characters are much more real than if I’d decided on a list of characteristics and felt obliged to stick rigidly to it.

But this approach can have it can have its downside.

correctionsI can start with a firm picture of a character in my mind, but then he or she may evolve into something very different … and that may not suit the story, so I’ll have to adjust the plot. I usually have certain scenes or events I want to get to which I’ve thought out very carefully in my mind, but then the characters lead me off in a different direction, so that wonderful scene I’d crafted so lovingly for later in the book no longer fits and has to be discarded.

In my new release Holding Back, both of the leads altered from what I had in mind when I started. My heroine Laura managed to keep to her personality – bless her! – but her motivation altered subtly, so I had to rethink how she reacted to events and to the hero. As for Daniel, he really stood up to me. He started out a bit on the stroppy side but soon told me he didn’t want to be seen that way throughout the book … and that he had a damned good reason for it, thank you very much, and would I mind explaining that to the reader? I shrugged my shoulders, did what I was told, and rewrote several scenes so they were more to his liking. Who was I to argue? I’m only the writer. 

Still, for all the trouble these wayward characters cause, I figure that if they can go their own way just like real people, it means I must have done my job properly!

If you’re a writer, do you stay in control of your characters, or do they control you? I’d love to hear from you.

Holding Back is now available as an e-book. Click on the image for more details.

HoldingBack - cover


10 thoughts on “Who exactly is in charge here?

  1. Patricia Kiyono says:

    Interesting way of looking at things! I try to plan ahead, at least the basics: the basic conflict needs to be in place, and then I try to figure out how the characters are going to react to it. But like you, my main characters often evolve and I’m helpless to stop them. I finished a story that I absolutely detest because the hero is a wimp. So after some intense brainstorming with a fellow author I figured out I need to let him have a bigger voice in the story. I’m hoping that resolves the issue, but who knows? As you say, they sometimes stand up to you and demand to have their say. Great post.

    • Helen Pollard says:

      Thanks, Patricia. Yes, I certainly have to have a basic direction in mind and you’re right, you need to know where the conflict will be .. although sometimes even that can shift if the characters are determined to be independent!

      • Patricia Kiyono says:

        Don’t you love it when the characters decide their story is totally different from the one you wanted to tell?

  2. April Munday says:

    My characters are definitely in control. I had one who started as a minor elderly figure in someone else’s story who suddenly dropped twenty-five years and demanded his own story. I had another one who started as vaguely heroic and then challenged the hero to a duel and behaved very badly. I think this is better that making them fit to the story, even though it does sometimes give me a problem with what I thought was the plot.

    • Helen Pollard says:

      It certainly sounds like yours have a mind of their own, April! But dropping 25 years and demanding your own story … now that’s being a bit forward, even by my characters’ standards 🙂

  3. Tonette Joyce says:

    Whether short stories or my attempt at a novel, my characters have changed who they are, their attitudes and their relationships. Some secondary ones have even opted out of stories or invited themselves into scenes where they weren’t expected. I think I have not gotten the novel I have had in my mind and mostly written because it looks like the main character is not going to be the one to make a reveal at the end, which I had planned all along.
    I can’t imagine being a complete plotster.

    • Helen Pollard says:

      No, Tonette, neither can I. I imagine I would have to be more disciplined if I was writing a really complicated thriller or generation-spanning saga, though …

  4. jeff7salter says:

    this is similar to how I write many of my stories: begin with an interesting situation or premise and see how the characters work it through.

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