Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Characters Behaving Badly

--by Juliet Blackwell

For the past week, my characters have been behaving badly.

Here's the scenario: I'm writing along, following (more or less) the outline that I was contractually obliged to turn in to my editor months ago --long before I had a clue what the book was actually going to be about-- and then some character pops up and goes an entirely different way than originally intended, veering off the outline and careening into brand new, uncontrolled territory.

What the hell?

I'm a reasonably intelligent person. I realize only too well that these characters -- in fact, this whole fictional world-- is a product of my mind, and my mind only. So how on earth can a character decide to disobey my demands... act and say things that are NOT part of my script? This makes no logical sense.

I used to be a social worker, so I jump up and consult the DSM-III-R (which, if you're in the field of psychology, gives you an idea of how long ago I trained -- I think they're on the DSM-X by now). This is the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic Statistical Manual, which is supposed to help in the diagnosis of disorders.

*Frantic flipping through pages...*

Hearing voices in my head...yada yada yada...Yup. I must have a multiple personality disorder. But don't we all? According to a great literary name, Mel Brooks:

Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living with him.

So maybe all fiction writers are just schizophrenic, living with multiple characters within us. This idea frightens me because I write murder mysteries. I hang out with people who write about murderers, assassins, and serial killers...these people enjoy nothing so much as talking about gruesome, inventive ways to kill someone. Does these mean they're just waiting for the right moment to let their inner Hannibal Lecter out for a spin? Should I become a romance writer instead? After all, I'd rather be romanced than...ya know...killed and eaten.

Maybe I'm becoming a romance writer already, whether I like it or not. Because the character that I said was behaving badly, the one who inspired this post? The one in a perpetually bad mood, who smokes, wears motorcycle boots, a black leather jacket, and a scowl? He just hit on my protagonist, right out of the blue.

He was supposed to be a bit character with a simple walk-on role, and now this.

The real problem is... my protagonist kissed him right back. I cannot keep that scamp under control.


Sophie Littlefield said...

oh my oh my have a definite bad boy on your hands. luckily i am fairly certain you will know exactly what to do with him....

Karen Olson said...

This happens to me all the time. And sometimes the character who jumps in wasn't even supposed to be there at all. I've got one of those in my new book. He wasn't in the proposal or the series bible, but there he was, he just showed up. And became a big enough character so he's in the second book, too!

Adrienne Bell said...

One of us. One of us. One of us. Ok, enough with the Freaks chanting.
Don't think you would get off the gruesome hook if you switched over to romance. My current book has two brutal beat downs, a stabbing and someone gets shot in the head.
Oh, and I LOVE characters who swing open the door, all John Wayne style and announce, I'm here to take over this book.

Dana Fredsti said...

This is why outlines, although handy enough to have as a suggestion as to how to write the book, are essentially worthless to me.

Hey...Juliet...wanna be over for dinner?

Judy H. said...

I was talking with my mother once about characters doing this, and she told me about how *her* bit character who was supposed to deliver a message and then disappear insisted on turning into the villain! None of my characters have misbehaved that badly *yet*.

Unknown said...

It's not as romantic as having a devasting mental illness or channeling actual ghosts or anything, but I've always thought that when my characters get all unruly, it's because my subconscious has matched a pattern that is contrary to my writer's will. You know how you just look at a person and you know they mean to mug you? Your subconscious (R cortex?) has put together a million little physical and behavioral cues -- he's been watching you, his breathing is shallow, pulse elevated, even though his looks are calm, etc. I think it's the same with writers -- we may have decided to use a certain character in a certain way, but once we've thrown together a few events, a few traits, the part of us that gets character, that storyteller within, has put together a more powerful scenario than the one we're currently consciously willing. Very frustrating, but ignoring that impulse is a mistake, I think.

Like, when you suddenly have a character say in dialog, "Now, you might find this boring but really it's not," to another character, that's really your writer's inner mind talking to you, trying to get your attention, telling you that YOU think something's boring. A screenwriting mentor taught me that ages ago. Same thing--we're wiser than we know, and sometimes we are wiser than our will.

Mario Acevedo said...

I have my characters completely under control. And I have their permission to say this.