“I almost let him die,” or a reflection on why our character whisper to us

whisper-2-166472-mAuthors: have you ever woken up with, say, a line of epic dialogue or something similar in your head? And you know it relates to characters you are writing about and working with? You can hear the tone, and you know vaguely what’s it about, and even though you don’t have all the answers, you know you need to work that in?

That one line might even change the course of a novel or series. Create new subplots. Force you to evolve your characters to make them more human. At least, that’s what happening in my case!

“I almost let him die.”

I woke up with that line of dialogue floating around my brain last year sometime. And I knew who was admitting it, and to whom. I knew how devastated he felt, and how that echoed in his voice. I knew exactly who was this guy he almost let die. I just didn’t have more details than that. Still don’t.

You see, I’m still working on my NaNoWriMo 2012 novel, which I’m hoping will start a series. (Either that, or I need to really rework things to give the book a satisfying, true ending.) I definitely see this line of dialogue helping me figure out how to develop my characters and my story, though.

And that’s great, because I’m learning fast I need to chart out where my story is going before I can edit the first novel further. Part of this is dealing with characters whom I love, but who may be a little bit too good to be believable.

Follow the Characters….

I always say to “follow the characters,” and this is precisely why. I feel that the character who speaks this line–prone to “knight in shining armor” tendencies, though I’m trying to downplay that as much as possible–is a bit unbelievable, and will definitely come off as ridiculous if I don’t do something to make him more human.

He’s very much the “willing hero” type, because he does have other options and could take his life in a different direction: one that isn’t evil in any way. He lives a tough life, though, sacrificing for the sake of other people.

I know that our characters aren’t real people, of course. But when we pretend like they are, and we ask ourselves, “What would this character do next?” or “Would this person really make that choice?” rather than, “How can I make this thing happen to advance the plot in a way I want?,” we are setting ourselves up for success. (For the most part. There are, of course, exceptions. We all write differently).

In my case, I feel like I can follow this character by focusing on the line “he gave me.” He was telling me, “No, no, no. Come on. If you keep putting me in situations like you’re putting me in, I’m going to crack and I’m going to mess up. Do something I won’t be proud of. At the very least, I’m going to be sorely tempted, and you need to acknowledge that. I’m human.

How Following the Characters Affects Your Plot

“Following the characters” affects your plot in all kinds of ways. You might veer off from where you thought you were heading. Your characters might complicate things, in a good way or a frustrating way (at least at first.) They will show up in places you don’t really want them or didn’t see them appearing.

This knight-type I’ve been talking about…. ugh. He’s now going to be part of a group heading overseas to a second kingdom. I didn’t see him joining that travel party. And he cares deeply for someone who will have to marry someone else (unless I can find a way to stop that from happening that makes sense and doesn’t feel forced.) So LOTS of possibilities.

They’re not all good possibilities, and I feel kind of torn about this. I have no idea how to wrap up this subplot, let alone the overarching story about three kingdoms at war. But the more I think about things, the more I realize this guy is NOT going to let the woman he loves go off alone. So that’s a starting point, and I can build from there.

I’m excited to try to map things out and see where they might go, because I’ve learned that even when I take the time to outline a bit, my characters develop more as I write. As a result, I end up changing things here and there from how I’d outlined them. I’m always trying to stay true to the characters as much as I can: that’s the bottom line.

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League.” She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

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30 responses to ““I almost let him die,” or a reflection on why our character whisper to us

  1. YES. You get heaps out of following your characters. I love it when a character takes over their own lives. I actually find it very easy to write them when that happens, because all I have to do is listen. Their reactions are real, their dialogue, their desires.

    Not all of my characters take off this way, but when it happens, I LOVE it. They always lead me to greater depths, both in the story and in the characterization. I have never yet been disappointed.

    Cheers! 🙂

    • I really agree with this. Not every character is going to jump up and force you to pay attention or lead you whether you want them to or not 🙂 But some do, and it is SO wonderful when they do that and you just know it is perfect and makes so much sense…. It just feels like a gift dropped into your lap!

  2. Yes, sometimes I think my characters are out of control! Sometimes I think they take great glee in whispering plot changes in my ear when I am vulnerable (ie sleeping, tending to my kids etc) and unable to resist. But they are usually right. I’m like you. I map out a basic story outline before I begin writing a book, sometimes as basic as a flow chart, and the story develops from there. The route getting to the ending may be full of twists and turns I hadn’t anticipated as I began to write the story, more convoluted, but I still get to the same destination and have a lot of fun along the way!

    • I am so glad I am not alone there! I think one big key to being successful as a writer is flexibility, and that’s exactly what you hit on here. You have to be willing to change your plan when you realize it won’t work or it could work but THIS other thing works better. It took me a while to learn to be less rigid and controlling.

      • My problem is I’m too easygoing, to willing to listen to other sides of the story…that’s why I was never any good at debating, I was always won round to the other teams point of view, not because I was weak, but because they enabled me to see things from a different pov lol!

  3. I follow my characters all the time. Though, half the time it’s them pulling me along while I’m spewing words on the page. My current book has a lot of this. One character was set to have a big fight, which lasted one paragraph because all he had to do was bop the goblin on the head. The new character has an entirely different personality than what I was expecting. That sounds weird, but it works better. I think there are times an author is so focused on the event happening that they forget the character to some extent. So, our subconscious comes into play with the missing pieces.

  4. Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden and commented:
    My morning is

  5. Following where the characters want to go has given me some of the best plot lines 😀 Unexpected ones, funny ones, all kinds of ones that weren’t originally supposed to be in my stories.

    Great line of dialogue, I can see why it was inspiring 🙂 Short but very powerful.

    • Yeah, and it come from nowhere! I always get my best ideas trying to fall asleep. It’s nuts!!! And it’s great to hear you’ve had similar experiences following the characters. The best plot lines do seem to evolve that way!

  6. Whew! And here I thought I was dealing with a serious neurosis because I “hear” my characters all the time.
    Or perhaps we’re all just mentally unstable, so we write as a cover?

  7. Yes, yes and yes! The number of times my characters have decided to stray from the plan (I’m an outliner – I don’t write detailed plots but I like to have an idea of where we are heading before starting), causing major headaches as I try to work through the repercussions. This tends to happen either when I am writing a scene, as if some god of writing takes control of my fingers to put words into my character’s mouths; in the shower, when I don’t have a pen to note the ideas down; or last thing at night as I am about to fall asleep. This last version has happened so often now that I keep a pad and pen by my bedside, much to the consternation of my wife.

  8. I have radically changed my characters, and saved one that was originally going to die a horrible and painful death because I came to like the character too much to let him die. Watching my characters develop as my story progresses has been fun.

    • It really is a blast! Nice to know some writers out there are moved to give characters a reprieve. I have been over backwards in a draft to save a character too!

      • I did not have to bend over backwards to save my character but after writing him for a while he went from a minor character to a major plot driver.

        My first draft of my main character in the outline made her a real bitch that I did not like and figured my readers would not cheer for such a heartless harridan.

  9. This happens to me constantly. I cant wait to see where your line took you!

    • thanks! it might be a while, though…. I think I need a break from this WIP entirely. Just to let it sit and “mature” a bit before I work with it anymore. Over a year with minimal progress is too much time wasted 🙂 So I’m moving on to something else, I think. Got a fabulous idea after I wrote this post!

  10. Reblogged this on Susan Coletta's Blog and commented:
    I know what you mean. I miss my characters when I shut down my computer. My husband will hear me laughing while I’m writing and he say, “What’s so funny?” and I answer with “Oh, it’s Shawny (character) She is such a hot ticket.”

  11. Pingback: Friday Link Pack: 2/28/14 | Write-Brained Ramblings

  12. My characters constantly surprise me. I think my favorite example thus far is my stable optimist scholar guy goes mad after realizing that he can’t read a text that the farmer guy can. It’s a really nasty slippery slope…and not what I was expecting. It helped drive a subplot conflict for that part of the book, which was awesome.

    • WOW how COOL is that plotline???? That is amazing! I honestly think the best developments are the ones we never see coming ahead of time when we’re writing. Then they just happen that way…. Incredible! Thanks for sharing!!!

  13. Oh god! The guiding dialogue line! I’ve had a few lines pop up now ans again that I try to work in, but only one true instance of what you’re describing. When the line came to me, it hit me so hard that I scribbled it on a post-it note and put it on my monitor. I realized that one line summed up the whole plot of the story and that her answer to the line would define her.

    That particular project was sidelined almost 2 years ago in favor of others, but I still have the post-it because someday I’m going to figure out how to work the story to get to that line and have it hit the reader as hard as it hit me. I won’t go back until I can.

    • “I realized that one line summed up the whole plot of the story and that her answer to the line would define her.”

      WOW that is so awesome. SO SO AWESOME 🙂 And funnily enough I’ve sidelined my project too!!! haha! it’s like we’re twins in this 😉

  14. Pingback: AUTHORS: on balancing personal struggles with action in creative writing | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  15. Pingback: Drew Gerken » Friday Link Pack: 2/28/14

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