When do we let characters have their own way, and when do we boss them around on the page?
Sometimes when you’re writing a narrative, your characters react in ways that you didn’t expect, and usually that’s great. It’s fun to discover new things about your characters (and yourself) while you write. However, sometimes your characters end up doing something that stresses you out because it is decidedly off-topic.
The default advice that I see out there for that situation is: congratulations, now follow your new journey! Enjoy the chaos, because the world you’ve been writing belongs to your characters now! Sit back and let your made-up subconscious geniuses do all the work, loser!
But when you are working as a professional writer, you are usually working with a deadline, so as much as you’d love to let your plucky vampire dryad have her whimsical existential crisis on the page, as some point she has to get back to the plot she walked in with.
When do we let characters have their own way, and when do we boss them around on the page? That’s a very personal thing that has to do with 1) the author’s personal taste, and 2) how confident the author is in her own voice as a writer.
Honestly, sometimes it’s great to let go of narrative control, but when you’re trying to write a specific story, writing is about guiding your own wild creative power. Think of riding and steering a horse: a powerful animal is going to do most of the work, but you’re there with reins to help steer and put the brakes on things. When we’re struggling or lacking in confidence, it’s usually a good idea to try letting your brain take over; it’s been down this route before, and knows the trail pretty well. But when you’re uncomfortable because your brain is steering you into a tasty patch of nettles, it’s time for you to turn things right around.
But how do we know if our horse-brain (get comfy with this metaphor, because I’m riding it all the way through the rest of this essay – yeehaw!) is steering us into proverbial nettles? What the hell are “nettles” in writing?
Well, nettles are things that nettle you, for one. They get under your skin and sit uncomfortably in the plot. But merely having the power to make you uncomfortable isn’t enough to make something a nettle, because even discomfort can be a useful narrative tool at times. Here’s another identifying aspect about a nettle: brains usually love them.
They’re often fun because they tend to pop up right in the middle of a “boring” part of writing a story. Suddenly, this exciting trip to the underwater butterfly concert is MUCH MORE important than the business meeting where your protagonist just confessed that she embezzled five million dollars from the company and hid every dollar bill inside the boxes of cereal that they manufacture.
But the most important identifying aspect of a nettle: it is way the heck away from the path you plotted originally.
When you find a nettle in your fiction, you have a few options. One is to just let the horse eat. Let that pony fill up on whatever it wants, and see where that gets you. Sometimes you get a good story out of nettles. If you think a nettle patch looks promising, I recommend saving a second file just for that so you can dig through it later.
You can also just say NO, I don’t have time for nettles, and get back to your path. This is perfectly acceptable! It’s not betraying your characters, or denying them some sort of authenticity (whatever THAT is). It’s O.K. to be in charge of your story!
If you notice that the nettle patch started to look interesting because of boredom with your own writing, well, work on that! Make your writing more fun. If you’re not entertained by your own story, it’s really tough to ask someone else to be. I usually find that it’s time to jump forward in the plot a bit, but it’s honestly not one-size-fits-all situation, so ask a trusted reader to take a look and offer their opinion. When you ask, instead of: “here’s a problem, what do you think I should do to fix it?”, I find it more useful to ask: “what would you want to see/happen next?”.
The more you write, the more confident you’ll become in your own voice and narrative sensibility. Your horse-brain will hike the trail with only a few nudges and clucks from your end. But in the beginning, there will be a lot of detours into the nettles. Have confidence, and listen to your own sense of fun (and personal taste), and the ride will get smoother.