Controlling Characters 03/21/21

There are two schools of thought when it comes to characters. The first is that the characters control the action. How many times have you heard an author say something along the lines of, “I had all these plans for my novel, but then the characters wanted to do something else”?

The second is that the plot controls the action. You are the puppet master, in control of the whole thing, and if something has to happen, your characters are going to do it whether they like it or not.

In the past, I’ve been pretty solidly in the first camp. This comes as a result of frontloading my novels with a lot of character development, and very little in the way of plot. In both of my first two novels, the majority of the page space is devoted to little vignettes designed to gradually build fully three-dimensional portraits of the main characters, and in both books the “action” kicks off in the last 20-30 pages, with a bunch of dominoes falling quickly. I write this way, I think, because The Wire had such an effect on my in my early twenties. I loved the way a whole season would build and build and build, only to have the shit start hitting the fan around episode 8 or 9.

I mean, the action in the Black Gum Cycle doesn’t kick off until the very end of Tomahawk, meaning I wrote three novellas that technically end up at about page 15 of an average crime novel.

However, as I’ve been writing my new novel Dying World, I’m looking to try something different. I’d like for my characters to move along a more pre-ordained path, particularly because I need them to be in certain places at certain times in order for the book to really work.

I was having trouble with this, and was looking for a way in. I’d gotten the first 10k words down, and had another 10k in plot notes, ideas, etc. But I couldn’t figure out how to get these characters to do the things I wanted them to. I talked about this with a buddy of mine on the phone, someone who really knows what he’s talking about, and gets paid for it, and he said, “Characters are what they do.”

Anytime I approach a project, I try to expand my toolkit to make the book unique and interesting. I added that little nugget in, and I have been integrating it to great success. When you lean too heavily on one technique, you can back off on it a bit. I mean, characters are my thing. So that will happen anyway. But what if my characters were also what they did?

What if we forced things to happen, and then we observe how the characters react to it? That’s something that can’t occur if you’re constantly waiting for characters’ permission to move forward.

And it works in the metacontext of Dying World, which is about two Manchurian Candidates from opposite ends of the political spectrum, who get “switched on” at the same time. How do they meet? Well, as the writer, I simply “switch them on.” It works in that fractal sense.

It’s worth giving that technique a shot, at least. It’ll work.

Check out my Gumroad page, that has all of my novels available for a pay-what-you-want model. Shamans and parasites, gods with jackal heads and living tattoos…this is minimalistic, surreal weirdo crime fiction. I’m proud of them!

1 Comment

  1. This is true of actual people too though. What they DO defines them. Yeah, the way people talk and who they know and where they live, sure, that defienes you. But what you DO? That’s a better indicator of the heart of a person. Otherwise, you’re just another person full of empty words. Or did you do the thing? Now we’re talking. Yeah your dog died. Did you cry over it and run and melt down to a blubbering mess in the middle of the street? Or did you pick up his broken body in your arms and carry him steadily home, tears streaming down your face and adrenaline pumping through your veins, slow and steady anyways? Cuz that’s two different people.

    Liked by 1 person

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